Tag Archives: incoherent state

Why Russia is not a mafia state.

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This week in a research event at Aarhus University I was asked to discuss with Lucia Michelutti her work on the mafia-like nexus of business-organised crime-politics in Uttar Pradesh. Her work is really thought-provoking and I recommend you check out her book on Mafia Raj.

Michelutti argues for the use of the term ’bossing’ to describe the partly performative work of criminal dons and wannabee mafiosi in India. This is because of the awkward absence of a word in English to describe the enactment of power: we have ‘to empower’ and ‘overpower’, but not a verb that clearly describes  power as a process. For Michelutti, ‘bossing’ by criminals-cum-politicians involves the mobilisation of performative competencies and which is subject to contestation in an unstable constellation of authority (and which lacks legitimacy), charisma, and local contexts (particularly community problems). The highlights of her talk for me were an elective affinity between delegated governance and organised criminality; starting from the premise of the ‘emic’ grounded use of language – ‘boss’ is the currency of talking about criminal/political entrepreneurs; mafia as a systemic yet amorphous reality, not a discrete organisation in itself.

This set me thinking about the use and abuse of the now common-place ‘Russia as a mafia state’. I was sceptical of Luke Harding’s book when it came out in 2011. Subsequent events have proved him right on some things (and me wrong). However, I still want to object to the looseness of the term ‘mafia’, and how it obscures more than it reveals. Quite reasonably, even ‘ordinary’ readers criticised him for not defining why Russia is a ‘mafia state’ when so many other corrupt, kleptocratic regimes are not. Broadly, Harding uses it to indicate collaboration of security services with organised criminality, to indicate the ‘kick back’ ubiquity of corruption to higher officials, to indicate the willingness of the state to use extortion against foreign states, or to indicate a general prevalence of extortion/protection relationships.

First a caveat: there are strengths to Harding’s book – the perspective of a person who feels the full sun-like gaze of the security services when they are let off the leash to harass a foreigner – see Kelly Hignett’s review here https://www.ceeol.com/search/viewpdf?id=61177. However, let’s not forget that Harding gets off lightly in comparison to many Russian victims of the state’s displeasure. Journalists of course write books and are professional writers. But I can’t be the only person to be disturbed (and of course made envious) by the attention these anecdotal, ultimately piecemeal and largely ‘readers digest’ accounts generate. For a critical review of Harding’s evidence-light work see a review of his book on Trump-Russia collusion by Paul Robinson: https://irrussianality.wordpress.com/2017/12/02/collusion/ . Now, I’m not saying he wasn’t harassed by the FSB, just that in moving from journalistic fluff and anecdote to book-length serious analysis he, and most others, fall short (I haven’t read Galeotti’s latest). Harding at worst gives readers a version of Cold War 2.0 that seriously impedes better understanding of the everyday reality of Russia.

So, some basic problems with the term ‘Mafia’. Mafia implies an overall structuring of all activity towards the end of enriching the boss via captains, clandestine activity linked to membership of an elect community with elements of charismatic leadership.  Okay, there’s a certain affinity here with descriptions of clientelistic and personalised relations, but why not just use that conceptual toolkit and ditch association with types of charismatic and in-group derived leadership as represented in popular culture by Vito Corleone, Paulie Cicero, or Tony Soprano.

The ‘true’ mafia ( of course they cannot be separated from their popular cultural depiction anymore) are only ever peripherally ‘political’, as Michelutti, points out (that of course, does not mean that they don’t buy politicians and political leverage). As a classic, yet parasitic ‘other’ to capitalism, mafias can only be defined in opposition to state structures. Most of all this is because they actively choose to occupy niches of criminality and employ physical violence, albeit in a limited way, that challenges the monopoly of violence that state reserves for itself. Most notably coercion is of a limited nature (there is a ‘civilian’ category, ‘victims’ are mainly from the same ethno-cultural community). Indeed, that ‘anyone’ can fall victim to the rapacious raiding of business by the kleptocratic Russian elites, means that if anything, Mafia is too ‘soft’ a word!

For organised crime, ‘criminality’ is the keyword. But, in the diffuse, corrupt, dysfunctional and contradictory world of the rule and unrule of law in Russia, words like ‘extortion’, ‘bribery’, ‘racketeering’ lose their meaning, because if state actors take assets from you in a way you experience as illegitimate, it is by virtue of their superior command of legal-administrative resources, but most importantly, their ability to make what appears to us as ‘criminal’, merely accumulation according to a logic of nearness to other more powerful state actors plus already existing financial resources. (Of course a bit of violence does help here – see the interesting work of Jacob Rigi on the ‘Corrupt State of Exception in Russia’).

Using the mafia label is unhelpful as it conjures for a Western audience an image of a Don, a clear hierarchy of made men, of grifting in secret and in fear of discovery, and of highly ritualised organisation of criminality. All of these things exist within the organised crime world of Russia, sure. But it is a massive stretch to make the leap from Goodfellas to The Kremlin. The ‘mafia-like’ practices of the state are both more organised (and less ‘illegal’) and more chaotic (influenced by political expedient rather than just graft), than that of any organised crime group. Indeed, in contrast even to the Sopranos’ ‘postmodern’ mafia, where charisma and tradition are starting to fail to limit conflict or reproduce loyalty, the kleptocratic workings in the Russian state shows an absence of a shared normative understandings of power and sovereignty. Despite Kordonsky’s work on ‘kick-back’ culture, there are no ‘made men’, nor is there a shared understanding of timeserving before becoming captain, and there is no honour, no chance of a ‘sit down’, and no percentage kickbacks with any permanence that would allow them to become informal rules governing ‘taxation’ or authority. What there is is an ever changing landscape of potentially equally powerful others, where there the ‘rules of the game’ can change more abruptly than in any criminal conspiracy, and where there are also ever-present political, policy and governance goals distracting  from – what I admit is the main task – making money.

Then we come to the ‘killing of enemies’ argument that people put forward because of Skripal, or Litvinenko. For the mafia metaphor to have explanatory meaning here it would require the state, security services and organised crime to have clearly demonstrable and densely redundant network characteristics over time. Even if it is shown that the Skripal was targeted because of his knowledge of organised crime in Spain linked to the Russian security services (I think that’s unlikely), a quick glance at the conflicting interests within the elite (and between security agencies), and the infighting of factions even at the highest level, the relative ‘weakness’ of the Presidential Administration to have its orders carried out, shows that such ‘networks’ would break down as soon as they arise, and could be only connections of expediency.

Take the Donbas – more a political project with hot and cold support from Moscow and a way of getting rid of nationalist and violence-orientated entrepreneurs. Most importantly, a huge drain on resources which has enriched only a few local players (hence the assassination of the them now). Not the actions of a ‘mafia state’ looking to get resources flowing upward from a ‘take’. The Skripals and Litvinenko before them are evidence of incompetence if nothing else. They remind me more of contexts like organisational rivalry, poor operational control, and opportunism, than methodical revenge. Certainly, the execution of these operations would embarrass any self-respecting professional hit man in the pay of a ‘mafia’.

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Tony says: ‘You call that a hit? My ducks could do better’

A British journalist discovered that if he writes critical articles in a semi-authoritarian state, the security services will target him. Sometimes there is a blurry line between activities the security services take against critics of the state and other corrupt activities. Sometimes, the security services are not under control of the state, even though there are lots of powerful politicians who have a security services background. Particularly on the last point, it’s been shown by scholars like Bettina Renz that this background is largely irrelevant and in addition is a correlation-causation error.  To end, a similar reminder from Marelle Laruelle on the dangers of rhetorical techniques of facile association. I might come back to this as, in the first place, I started thinking about this topic because I am working towards the idea of the everyday ‘incoherent’ state in Russian, particularly in the workings of the lowest level of street-level bureaucrats.

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