Russian Crime, Corruption Give New Meaning to 'Roof'

With the breakdown of law and order, Russians seek protection feudal-style, from whomever they can get it

A FOREIGNER who does not know the meaning of terms such as "affirmative action" or "political correctness" has no chance of understanding life in contemporary America. It was the same with Bolshevik Russia after the revolution. Without knowing the meaning of terms such as kulak, class enemy, or capitalist encirclement, one would have had no idea about what was going on in Russia through the decades.

Post-Communist Russia offers its own lexicon, which, in contrast to the past, comes not from the mouths of new politicians but from underground slang. Among these phrases the most popular is krysha, best translated into English as "roof."

This term has become widespread in Russia in the last year, and hardly an issue of a Russian newspaper, central or local, has ignored it. Without it, it is virtually impossible to explain important developments in contemporary Russia.

Briefly, the term conveys a very important message for the world - the Russian state is highly corrupt and unable to protect its citizens against crimes and arbitrariness. Active Russians, be they involved in the economy, politics, or the media, must look for their own private shield.

The phenomenon that I describe here - the private protection of people in a weak and corrupt state - was well known in early feudalism during the ninth through 12th centuries, and still exists in the modern world.

Even in the United States it exists in legal forms (private guards, citizens' self-protection teams) as well as in illegal forms, particularly in big cities such as New York or Los Angeles. However, probably nowhere has the notion of "roof" had such an immense impact on political and economic processes as in Russia, where it has become an institution successfully competing with the official state.

SINCE the very beginning, privatization has been accompanied by extortion and blackmailing of business. At the same time, it became evident that victims had no hope of getting help from law enforcement. Under the new conditions businesspeople, from street vendors of flowers and private farmers to the owners of big banks and even state enterprises, decided to accept criminals' "offer" to provide them with a "roof" against other racketeers.

According to Marc Galeotti, a British researcher of the Russian criminal world, about 80 percent of all enterprises in Russia "buy a roof" from the mafia. This "roof" typically costs 20 to 30 percent of their profits.

As an alternative, businesspeople could choose corrupt policemen, who for the same amount of money deliver similar protection against criminal gangs. Usually police and criminal structures observe the division of an area among themselves, and follow the rule of "first come, first serve" in regards to who provides a particular client with a "roof."

Quite often big business, without refusing contacts with the criminal world, creates its own "roof" - private armies and private "KGB." For these purposes it recruits former KGB and army generals; Russia currently has hundreds of private military units and private detective agencies. Philip Bobkov, former deputy chairman of the KGB, for instance, serves as the head of security for the "Most" financial empire.

The Russian state machinery can be considered inefficient only if it is evaluated by its handling of public goals. It is quite effective, however, in serving the private interests of its bureaucrats, in "privatizing state machinery" for their private purposes. Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a prominent expert on the criminal dimension of Russian business, wrote recently in Izvestia that in Russia only those banks prosper which, like Menatep or Oneksim Bank, the state takes under its "roof," empowering them to work on its behalf, providing them with cheap credit, and helping them buy state property for a fraction of its real value.

The state machinery appears incredibly inefficient and unreliable in the performance of its public functions. Aware of this in one way or another, President Boris Yeltsin created his own krysha in the past two years, particularly after the events of October 1993.

This is a sort of royal domain similar to the possessions of a French king long before the victory of absolutism. In the Soviet era, the head of state's special guard was affiliated with the KGB. Mr. Yeltsin broke with this tradition and created a network of bodies that, as elements of the presidential structure, report only to him. At the same time, Yeltsin is a solid "roof" for many dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people in his administration.

Yeltsin's disappearance from the political scene would entail catastrophe for them: The opposition would seek to extract revenge, including criminal prosecution of those who use the president as their roof. For just this reason we can expect Yeltsin's circle to use any means, legal or illegal, to delay his departure from the political scene as long as possible.

THE importance of a "roof" in Russians' lives is a sign of significant malaise in society. It means that the rule of law does not reign in the country and that the collusion of corrupt bureaucrats, criminals, and business is a fundamental fact of Russian life. It immensely inhibits the country's economic and political progress, stimulates the flight of capital and talent abroad, and precludes foreign companies from investing in Russia's potential.

Of no less importance, the atmosphere of lawlessness discredits democracy in the eyes of millions of Russians. They associate their new freedoms with chaos, and often express admiration for the promises made by the Communists and nationalists, who vow to restore order with an iron fist.

The opposition's success in the last parliamentary election must be directly ascribed to Russians' yearning for order even if it means sacrificing political freedoms. According to a poll conducted by the All-Russian Center for Public Opinion Studies, 79 percent of Russians who were asked the question "Do you prefer democracy or order?" chose the second option. Only 8 percent responded positively for democracy.

But let us suppose that the Communists and their allies win the June 1996 election and take control of the country. Will they be able to install order and eliminate the "roof" as a major institution in Russian life? That is more than doubtful.

Of course, with harsh measures against some criminals and corrupt bureaucrats and businesspeople, and with a string of public trials, the crime situation will appear to improve for a short period of time, but then the country will lapse into its previous state of disorder.

To radically improve their society, Russians need, among many other things, political and economic elites devoted to the national interest and not to their private interests.

Unfortunately, it will take a lot of time before order based on the respect for law will be installed in Russia, which suffered greatly under Soviet rule.

And Russia cannot progress without a genuine moral resurrection.

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