At Large

Russia’s Dirty Big Secret

How do you say omerta in Russian?

By 2.27.09

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The interrelationship of Russia's internal security services with the various elements of  major crime is so complicated that even the several services themselves have been unable -- or unwilling -- to kept track of the extent. Simply put, Russian law enforcement is now and has been for many years -- mobbed up!

The history of this phenomenon goes back to the days of the Czars, but found a special role during the despotic days of Joseph Stalin. During that time the relatively small club of Communist Party members was supplied with hard-to-get foreign goods and choice food products with the assistance of the government-manipulated traditional criminal class. These discriminatory practices increased exponentially in the years afterward, most particularly during the Khrushchev-Brezhnev years.

Yuri Andropov, former KGB chief, brought a degree of organization into the security service/organized crime working relationship when he became General Secretary of the Communist Party and leader of the USSR. Gorbachev ran into serious political trouble when he tried to rein in what had become an out-of-control system. When the Soviet Union fell, the strongest economic organizations in the nation were those with crime connections.

The heads of these favored enterprises soon became known as "oligarchs" and personal and corporate protection was sought from and supplied by the newly reconstructed internal security services such as the FSB and the Interior Ministry's elite surveillance division (OPU). Some analysts have set the figure of 40% as the proportion of former members of the KGB, 2nd Chief Directorate (internal security service), who found such employment in the public sector during the 1990s.

The scope of this employment has run the gamut from private protection to utilization of their former agent networks to develop smuggling and other illegal activities involving both civilian and military goods. The result has been that after Putin came to power the official Russian internal security service, the FSB, now spent a great deal of its effort in countering criminal activity in which former officers and agents were engaged.

The additional problem with this new paradigm is that the FSB continues to seek to use for other covert purposes many of its ex-agents and officers. Thus when a sophisticated operation such as the assassination of former KGB intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko in London involves a former KGB 9th Department (Protection Service) officer, Andrei Lugovoi, it is not the rogue ex-officer class that is looked at by the British MI5 and Special Branch. The extremely covert elements still officially within the FSB are the target.

A recent trial of three Chechnyan men exonerated them for the murder of the famous Russian journalist, Anna Politkovskaya. Russian prosecutors had to battle against confused testimony of their own witnesses as well as an FSB that steadfastly avoided providing evidential assistance.  In the end the prosecution was ineffective; it was based for the most part on contested testimony of a former OPU colonel, himself formerly charged as an accomplice, and now in hiding in a witness protection program.

Perhaps the most damning aspect of the Russian domestic security service -- that may actually lap over to the external intelligence service as well -- is the fact that on-duty security officers have regularly "moonlighted" for private commercial enterprises. Sometimes these private companies are involved in illegal activity and the security personnel give them a form of cover.

There is a philosophy behind all this illegitimate activity and divided loyalty. With the allegiance to and protection from Party membership gone, the individual bureau chiefs in state agencies like the FSB in effect head profit centers. Officers in a given department thus owe their allegiance to their nachalnik (governor). This superior in turn provides his officers with administrative and financial protection. In Russian this is referred to as krysha (roof). Any officer with a powerful "roof" is thus to be respected and even feared.

A young officer rising through the ranks of the Russian security service usually doesn't get his job in the first place without some form of connection. This is then developed as he or she moves up the line. Promotions actually depend on further development of this divided form of loyalty and effective servitude. Eventually the successful security officer develops his own cadre.

This then is the dirty not-so-little secret of the Russian security service: The domestic security apparat of Russia is a private business cooperative and not the state agency of "untouchables" that is required to be the "sword and shield" of the nation. Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the original Chekist, must be spinning in his grave.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.