Andrey Rylkov Foundation
for Health and Social Justice

Russian state and the drug trade

The leaking of US embassy cables by the website WikiLeaks last year proved to be one of the most astonishing stories in recent memory. The murky world of international diplomacy was revealed to all, as readers were granted access to the private communications of embassy staff. Many of these cables, which were never meant for public eyes, illustrated the real opinions of diplomats and proved to be an embarrassment for the US. Nevertheless some striking points of view were revealed, one of which was the description of Russia as a  “Mafia State”. In the cable, the Spanish National Court Prosecutor Jose “Pepe” Grinda Gonzalez stated that:

“he considers Belarus, Chechnya and Russia to be virtual “mafia states” and said that Ukraine is going to be one. For each of those countries, he alleged, one cannot differentiate between the activities of the government and OC [organised crime] groups.” (WikiLeaks: Mafia State)

Grinda further alleges that the Russian military and security services control much of the activity of organised crime groups and “alleged that there are proven ties between the Russian political parties, organized crime and arms trafficking.” (WikiLeaks: Mafia State) There appears to be a great deal of evidence surrounding these claims with many documented cases involving corruption and money laundering within the political and military elite. Unsurprisingly then, it seems necessary to question whether there is in fact state participation in the area of drug smuggling.

Whilst this might seem an outlandish claim, the idea is not actually that farfetched. There is ample evidence of other states being involved in international drug smuggling, in particular North Korea (methamphetamine) and Myanmar (heroin). In both cases there is evidence of not only participation but also the sanctioning of this activity. We should therefore not dismiss these claims right off the bat, as these difficult questions need to be asked.

In order to understand how a state could possibly be involved in the drugs trade we need to look at Russia’s unique past. Russia has a long history of collusion between state and various criminal organisations, stretching back to the early years of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Gulag has often been seen as the birthplace of the modern criminal class. Criminals lived according to “vory v zakone” (thieves law) which dictated what they could and could not do. Much crime encompassed both outright illegal acts as well as the misuse of state property, such as providing goods and services outside of official channels. Many in the Communist Party elite, who abused their positions of power, developed ties with these groups in order to gain rare consumer goods. They also provided protection to criminals and gave their activities a veil of legitimacy. The profits from crime were therefore passed upwards within the system and benefited many who were not directly involved in criminal activity. In fact according to certain academics, in the Soviet Union: “The giant state apparatus thus not only allowed criminal activity, but encouraged, facilitated, and protected it, because the apparatus itself benefited from crime.” (The Threat of Russian Organized Crime, James O. Finckenauer and Yuri A.Voronin, p.6)

The modern Russian Mafia is believed to have first appeared towards the end of the 1960s and became thoroughly intertwined with the Russian state. In fact the highest members of these organisations often held some of the most senior positions within the state. Stephen Handelman, in his study of organised crime in Russia, has noted how this collusion of state and criminal activities was fostered by the pervasive corruption of the Brezhnev Era. A time in which many high officials, seeking their own personal enrichment, would quite happily exhort money from criminals. (Handelman, Comrade Criminal: Russia’s New Mafiya, 5)

The collapse of the Soviet Union led only to further corruption and criminality as both state and criminal actors sought to maximise their opportunities in the new era. Towards the end of the Gorbachev era, when certain aspects of enterprise were legalised, it was often those from criminal backgrounds who were best positioned to take advantage of the climate. They often received help from those within the Party, who held important connections. Many were able to obtain valuable state assets and resources, and effectively extended their power and influence into the legal realm. Thus Russia’s new capitalist class was often inextricably linked to both the communist state and the criminal underclass.

The 1990s proved to be a period of often complete lawlessness in Russia, with gangs often engaging in open warfare with both other criminals and state agencies. In fact, this was a period in which many state security agencies were often co-opted and used for criminal purposes. It is this aspect of criminality which may be most obviously linked to the illegal drug trade.

In the immediate era after the collapse of the Soviet Union many state financed organisations faced a huge loss in subsidies. Along with industry and agriculture, the military was one of the areas most heavily hit by the government’s cut backs. Some commentators have noted that in some cases, military bases had their power supplies cut off and soldiers had their rations restricted because the Central Defence Ministry had failed to pay the bills! (The Criminalisation of Russian State Security, Mark Galeotti, p.474) This led to what many saw as a period of “uncontrolled entrepreneurialism” within the armed forces, almost all of which was, to a certain degree, criminal. The army, in order to ensure its own survival, became geared towards profit with soldiers and officers often providing goods and services for criminal gangs. A particularly worrying trend was the growing trade in weapons, which were often sold to Chechen and other separatist forces. In fact, it was rumoured that a Russian military helicopter was sold to the Columbian Cali Cartel! (Ibid, p.481)

It is no surprise then, given this atmosphere and the Russian State’s historic links to the criminal world, that many stories surfaced of the Russian military’s involvement in the smuggling and, in certain circumstances, the manufacture of illegal drugs. In the 1990s, it was found that Border Troop aircraft and land transport were used to ship drugs from Central Asia, as part of a contract with criminal gangs. At the time, Russian troops had a large presence in Tajikistan, a country which is a key hub in opium trafficking from Afghanistan, and this did much to promote and exacerbate the situation. Perhaps more striking was the fact that in 1998, it was found that chemical weapons bases in St. Petersburg were being used to manufacture synthetic drugs for export to the West! (Ibid, p.475-476) What is also remarkable is the fact that Russian Military facilities and transports were often exempted from police and other controls, allowing most aircraft and military bases to be kept hidden from prying eyes. This situation only encouraged the illegal trade and led to many facilities becoming essentially “safe havens” for criminal gangs and their contraband. In fact, one study has noted that, in certain circumstances, the military were often working for themselves in these operations, rather than for criminal gangs. Yuriy Spirin observed in his study of the heroin trade how Tajik soldiers often swapped their weapons with Afghan warlords for heroin, which was then sold to Russian officers. They then used their own aircraft, which were not subject to either Russian or Tajik customs controls, to move the heroin into Russia for sale to civilian criminal gangs. (Yuriy Spirin, Heroin Heroes)

It therefore seems evident that there is a definite criminal element within the Russian Army. The question remains though as to how widespread this phenomenon is. Are these actions merely the work of individual officers and regiments or does this represent a far wider corruption within the establishment? According to Main Military Prosecutor General Savenkov, the problem lies with the officer’s corps, with approximately 46.9% of crimes committed by senior commanders. (The Criminalisation of Russian, p.475) A leaked General Staff report on corruption within the Defence Ministry named many senior figures including former Defence Minister Pavel Grachev and his predecessor, three deputy defence ministers and 22 generals. (Ibid p.475) It would seem therefore that the rot within the institution is fairly widespread.

As for drug smuggling, widespread corruption also seems to be the norm. In 2000, Russian military intelligence officer Anton Surikov spoke out about the involvement of the Russian military in the drugs trade. According to him, a substantial proportion of the drugs produced in Afghanistan had been directly shipped from Dushanbe on Russian military aircraft. Tajiks would smuggle the drugs into Tajikistan with the complicity of Russian border guards. The drugs were then put aboard Russian aircraft and flown to Russia. The most shocking aspect of Surikov’s charge was that he estimated the involvement of between 50 to 100 senior officers. This seems to have been confirmed by Moscow News correspondent Sanobar Shermatova who said she had met with officers who had confirmed the existence of this trade. Shermatova even stated that the Russian High Command knew of the situation but did nothing to stop these officers, perhaps hinting at involvement at even higher levels. (Charges Link Russian Military to Drug Trade, Radio Free Europe, 2000)

Although these reports are shocking we should avoid making wild accusations of government involvement as this situation does seem to be markedly different from say North Korea, in which we can point to direct state involvement in drug production. Nevertheless these reports do seem to suggest fairly widespread involvement of state and military personnel. It may not be actively sanctioned at the top, but there does seem to be a culture of turning a blind eye; as long as everybody gets paid, few questions are asked. People may say that Russia is a very different place now as compared to the lawless 1990s and this is true in certain respects. Russia is no longer the “Wild West” and gangs very rarely openly fight for influence and power. Yet there has been little overall reduction in crime and corruption, as those groups who fought each other in the 90s are now the ones in power and have institutionalised their influence. We need only observe the fact that in 2011, Russia was ranked 143rd in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, a rank also obtained by Nigeria. It should come as no surprise then when we hear Russia accused of being a “mafia state”.

At the beginning of this report, the question of whether the Russian state could be involved in drugs smuggling was posed. After looking at the Russian State’s historical involvement with organised crime as well as evidence of participation in smuggling and manufacturing, this idea may not seem so outlandish. We will of course never know the extent of official involvement and it would be pointless to make wild accusations. Nevertheless there does seem to be aspects of state participation with many senior figures directly benefitting from this trade.

This issue poses a huge problem for Russia, a country with the worst heroin problem in recent history. It is estimated that the country has approximately 2 million heroin addicts and this figure is growing every day. What is perhaps most disgusting, is the fact that Russia officially pursues a harsh prohibitionist stance with very few harm reduction facilities. In fact there are just 69 needle exchange programmes in the entire country. What makes this even worse is the fact that 66% of all new HIV infections are spread by injecting drug users.

With addiction rates through the roof and users switching to more and more dangerous substances, such as Krokodil, in order to fund their habits, the fact that certain sections within the elite may be benefiting from the trade raises a few questions. When so little effort is put into preventing and dealing with addiction, one has to ask whether certain sections of the elite, who are directly benefiting from this trade, see this situation as beneficial. After all, their profits must be through the roof. These questions need to be asked and politicians and other officials need to come clean over where they get their money.

It recently came to light that Vladimir Putin had amassed over $40 billion (?20 billion) during his time in office. The circumstances surrounding the acquisition of this money are shrouded in mystery as much of it has been hidden in bank accounts in Switzerland and Lichtenstein (Guardian, Putin, the Kremlin power struggle and the $40bn fortune, 21st December 2007). We will probably never know how this fortune was acquired, nevertheless, when we take into account the above evidence, maybe it would not be so outrageous to suggest that some of it may have come from dealing drugs.


Category Categories: Drug policy in Russia | Tag Tags: , , | Comments No comments »

Leave a comment: