By David Amoruso
The recent WikiLeaks publication of secret diplomatic cables between U.S. officials and contacts in other nations around the globe has painted a grim picture of the Russian government. The cables feature reports about how the Kremlin and organized crime are closely working together and participate in bribery, extortion, arms and drug trafficking, money laundering, and even contract killings. The publications also allege that Vladimir Putin is still the man in charge of Russia and that Medvedev is viewed as “Robin to Putin’s Batman”.
This is nothing new. These kind of allegations have been made ever since Boris Yeltsin was in charge of Russia, but they never went beyond a sporadic newspaper article or segment on the nightly news. The only one who kept reporting about these stories was Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist who was very critical of the Kremlin and its actions. In her book Putin’s Russia, she condemns the way the government, led by Vladimir Putin, mistreats its citizens. She writes about how, under Putin’s rule, bribery has become the norm. She explains how it had gotten to the point that one can only hope to replace the person he bribes, so he in turn can receive said bribe. In the end every person continues to bribe and pay his way to the top of the chain. Yet despite all these bribes and all these riches exchanging hands the government has no interest in giving back and its people are left in the cold.
Politkovskaya (right) worked for the Novaya Gazeta, which was one of the few national Russian newspapers that continued to be critical of the Kremlin. Politkovskaya’s reporting gave Western journalists an insight into a world that had been shut off from the West for decades and was now slipping into a new form of dictatorship. Her criticism meant a normal life was out of the question. “She had been locked in a hole in the ground by Russian troops and threatened with rape, kidnapped, and poisoned by the FSB on the first flight to Rostov after the Beslan school siege in 2004. Her husband left her. Her son pleaded with her to stop. Her neighbors, cowed by the attentions of the FSB in an upmarket street in central Moscow, shunned her”, reported The Guardian. But despite this she never stopped her quest to show the world the true face of Russian politics. She never quit out of free will, so her opponents silenced her in a manner that is common in the world of organized crime: they killed her. On October 7, 2006, which happens to be Putin’s birthday, a gunman shot Politkovskaya in the body and head and left the gun next to her dead corpse. She was the thirteenth Russian journalist that had been murdered since Putin came to power.
After her death there was outrage, but in the years that followed things settled down. Putin participated in numerous photo ops and the international media and politicians never applied a steady pressure on the Kremlin. Now, however, the combination of the hype surrounding WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange (who is currently wanted by Interpol) and FIFA (the governing body of international football) naming Russia the host nation for the World Cup Football in 2018, while accusations about corruption within the organization emerged just weeks before, sees to it that every news agency is devoting a lot more time and space to these documents.
Russia: The New Mafia State
Politkovskaya had described in her book how the line between the Russian government and organized crime had slowly blurred until it disappeared altogether. In several documents published by WikiLeaks we find pieces that corroborate that description and paint an explosive picture of Russian organized crime. Spanish National Court Prosecutor Jose "Pepe" Grinda Gonzalez told American diplomats how Moscow was using organized crime groups to carry out operations that could not be undertaken by an official government. According to a "thesis" by Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian intelligence official who worked on organized crime issues before he died in late 2006 in London from poisoning under mysterious circumstances, Russian intelligence and security services control organized crime in Russia. Gonzalez specifically named each service; Federal Security Service (FSB); the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR); and military intelligence (GRU), before stating “that he believes this thesis is accurate”.
Furthermore, Gonzalez said that “according to information he has received from intelligence services, witnesses and phone taps, certain political parties in Russia operate "hand in hand" with Organized Crime. For example, he argued that the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was created by the KGB and its successor, the SVR, and is home to many serious criminals. [Gonzalez] further alleged that there are proven ties between the Russian political parties, organized crime and arms trafficking. Without elaborating, he cited the strange case of the "Arctic Sea" ship in mid-2009 as "a clear example" of arms trafficking.”
The prosecutor went on to discuss how Spanish authorities had managed to arrest several top Russian Mafia bosses in the past few years. “He said that since 2004 Spanish prosecutors have created a formal strategy to "behead" the Russian mafia in Spain. He explained that this has been a top-down strategy done through extensive investigations of criminal actions by these vory v zakone living in Spain. These individuals have no known jobs and unknown sources of income, yet they live in large mansions. Spanish prosecutors have concluded that money-laundering is likely involved and the challenge has been how to prove this. [Gonzalez] says that Spain's longtime experience in fighting drug traffickers' use of money laundering has proven valuable in this regard.”
The money-laundering investigations have a two-fold objective, the report continues, “to prevent the targets from profiting from the original crime and to prevent the targets from gaining enough clout to enjoy economic influence, which [Gonzalez] suggested sooner or later always reaches political power. This is why Spain's Attorney General has grouped together the prosecutors' office for anti-corruption and organized crime. As part of this strategy to prevent [Mafiosi] from enjoying economic influence, Spain's strategy includes the seizure of businesses, companies, furniture and other assets.”
The political influence is notable with bosses like Gennadios Petrov and Tariel Oniani. “Gennadios Petrov (right), the chief target of Spain's Operation Troika was engaged in a "dangerously close" level of contact with senior Russian officials,” according to the report. Adding: “COMMENT: In a surprise move, Spanish judges granted bail to Petrov, who is out on house arrest as of January 31, 2010.” Whether or not Petrov managed to call in a favor is simple guesswork, but with all that has been said it does seem very suspicious.
This is even more clear when Gonzalez discusses the lack of cooperation Spain has received from Russia. “In June 2005, Georgian-born Tariel Oniani fled to Russia hours before he was to be arrested in Spain and Russia gave him citizenship in April 2006, despite the fact that he had fled Spanish justice. [Gonzalez] alleged that the granting of citizenship was neither "innocent" nor "something done for free," and was an example of Russia putting crimelords to work on behalf of its interests. [Gonzalez] alleged that the Russian Ministry of Interior and the FSB are closely protecting Oniani in Russia (even in prison). Following Oniani's arrest in Moscow in June 2009, Spain requested his extradition for charges stemming from Operation Avispa, to which Russia replied that Oniani's Russian citizenship prevented him from being extradited. [Gonzalez] said that Russia "always tells Spain that it will take away Oniani's citizenship, but it never does." [Gonzalez] said that, from his experience, "A virture of the Russian government is that it will always say and do the same thing: nothing."
Where Spanish Justice sees a noticeable lack of cooperation on the side of the Kremlin, it is clear the Russian Mafia has no such problem. Though the political bosses in Moscow can only do so much, as is illustrated in the case of Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout. Bout had been caught in Thailand during a sting operation in which he made a weapons deal with an undercover agent. The US wanted Thailand to extradite him so they could put him on trial, but Thailand was stalling and things did not look good for US prosecutors.
In the cables leaked by WikiLeaks the process surrounding Bout’s extradition becomes a bit more clear. Russian officials were not only backing Bout publicly during media appearances but were also involved in providing false testimony and bribing witnesses.
American diplomats wrote: “There have been disturbing indications that Bout's xxxxxxxxxx and Russian supporters have been using money and influence in an attempt to block extradition. The most egregious example was the false testimony of xxxxxxxxxx that Bout was in Thailand as part of government-to-government submarine deal. Thus, we felt it was time to once again raise the matter at the top of the government and make clear that, while we understand the judicial process must take its course without political interference, we insist that the process be free of corruption and undue influence.” In the end the Russian officials and “supporters” of Bout could not prevent the extradition, but after reading the leaked cable it is clear they have tried their best.
A Mafia Boss Can Not Retire
As the Russian government and organized crime have become more entangled it is inevitable that one looks to the man in charge of it all. For years, that man was former KGB agent Vladimir Putin. He replaced his opponents with old friends who, at one time, had worked with him at the KGB. Within a short time Putin held firm control over the entire Kremlin.
He then went after the so-called Oligarchs, rich Russian businessmen, who refused to abide by his rules. Those who supported him, did just that. Those who did not had a very tough time, and either went into exile or saw their world crumble before their eyes. Two examples are Boris Berezovsky, who fled Russia and now lives in Britain, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was the head of Yukos Oil Company until Putin managed to put his adversary in prison on fraud charges.
As Putin (right) neared the end of his second term as Russian President his position of power was absolute. The Russian constitution made it impossible for him to run for a third term and in theory the time had come for him to step down from the throne. But if he relinquished his control old enemies might be tempted to make a move on him. Putin found himself in a stressful position. He had molded modern Russian society in such a way that those in a position of power were able to accept bribes and use the bureaucracy as they saw fit. Once in this position they only needed to worry about those in a position above them. This was the way it worked in Putin’s Russia. And in Putin’s Russia there is no way a regular Putin can survive.
That is why he is still involved in politics and serves as Prime-Minister to his replacement and new President Dmitry Medvedev. But the leaked cables suggest that despite the title change, Putin is still the man in charge. American diplomats report: “Medvedev and Putin work well together, but Putin holds most, and the best, of the cards in the tandem relationship.” According to the diplomats “Medvedev plays Robin to Putin's Batman".
“Putin’s return to the Kremlin is not inevitable, but should things remain stable, Putin remains in a position to choose himself, Medvedev, or another person as Russia's next president.” As if he were using a front boss to run his crime family. Like Tony Soprano using his Uncle Junior in television series The Sopranos. So, is Putin as involved in running his crime family as Tony Soprano was? It is impossible to say. But if we are to believe the leaked diplomatic cables and brave journalists, it seems Russians are dealing with a government that has little interest in justice and their well being and all the more interest in power and money.
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