The United States' planned effort to help the Russians battle organized crime is long overdue, but needs to be handled with great caution, say experts on Russian crime.
Under the former Communist system, the loyalties of top officials in the security-related ministries were clear. Now, with the political situation fluid and crime syndicates' influence growing, US officials must be careful about the information they share and with whom, these experts say.
``There are reasons to believe that we can work together,'' says Georgetown University professor Roy Godson, an expert on Russian organized crime. ``But there are risks. Now the security apparatus is much more fragmented, with competing interests and more rivalries.''
On July 4, the Federal Bureau of Investigation will open a two-man office in Moscow, and FBI director Louis Freeh will be there as part of a 10-day trip to Russia and eight other European countries to discuss international crime issues.
Last week, Mr. Freeh outlined to reporters the ``three major problem areas'' he and his delegation will focus on in Europe: the security of nuclear weapons and materials in Russia and other former Soviet republics; the spread of organized crime and drug-trafficking, particularly in the former Soviet Union; and the growth of neo-Nazi and racist skinhead groups in the US and Germany.
Freeh will be traveling with other top US officials, including those from the State Department, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Treasury Department, and the Secret Service - a show of cooperation among US agencies that at times has been lacking.
The three-day visit to Russia marks a recognition that organized crime poses a profound threat to Russia's nascent democratization and market reform. According to a Russian government report, up to 80 percent of businesses are paying protection money to Russian crime syndicates.
``This kind of economic drain contributes to economic weakness and the high rate of inflation,'' says Assistant Treasury Secretary Ron Noble, a participant in the trip.
Drug-traffickers have siphoned $500 million from the legitimate Russian economy, according to DEA administrator Thomas Constantine, also part of the delegation. Mr. Constantine says Russian groups have already joined forces with Colombian drug cartels to use Russia as a transshipment point for the rest of Europe. In addition, he says, Russians involved with Sicilian organized crime groups have sold narcotics in the US.
But the US and Russian hands have been tied in dealing with the growing international ``joint ventures'' among crime groups, Freeh says.
``Right now if we identify a fugitive in one of our cases who is inside Russia, or there are banking records there that we need, or a particular witness that we want interviewed, there are no legal means for us to access that information,'' the FBI director says. ``The absence of memoranda of understanding between our agencies and the East European police services really inhibits, on a very rudimentary level, the ability to work on cases.''
The US delegation will be visiting Russia at a delicate time for law enforcement matters. In a June 14 decree, Russian President Boris Yeltsin granted police sweeping powers to fight organized crime, a move criticized as violating civil rights.
Freeh calls the risk that nuclear materials may be stolen by criminal gangs as the ``greatest national security threat,'' mentioning several cases of highly enriched nuclear materials missing in Russia. But last week, Russian Deputy Interior Minister Mikhail Yegorov denied criminal gangs were trading in nuclear materials.
Henry Sokolski, who was US deputy defense secretary for nonproliferation under President Bush, says it would be a mistake to think the key source of proliferation worries in the former Soviet Union is due to organized crime. ``There's a lot going on that's allowed by the Russian government,'' Mr. Sokolski says. ``We don't like to talk about that, because then we'd have to start talking about sanctions.''
Renssalear Lee, an expert on international drug trade who is writing a book on Russian organized crime, says the extent of Russian criminals' involvement in nuclear trafficking has been exaggerated. ``Why engage in such a high-risk activity when there's so much money to be made in oil and drugs?'' he asks.
But he applauds the FBI's effort to work in Russia. ``For too long organized crime was seen as a sort of primitive capitalism that will disappear when Russia completes the transition to a market economy,'' he says.
Testifying last month before the US Congress, Mr. Yegorov said there were some 5,700 crime groups in Russia, with 101 of them operating abroad. FBI director Freeh says his agency is working on 35 to 40 cases involving Russians in the US with criminal ties to their native country.