The Kleptocracies of Eastern and Central Europe
By: Dr. Sam Vaknin
Also published by United Press International (UPI)
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Written December 20, 2002
Updated March 2005
The process of transition from communism to capitalism was largely hijacked either by outright criminals in budding outfits of organized crime - or by pernicious and all-pervasive kleptocracies: politicians and political parties bent on looting the state and suppressing the opposition, sometimes fatally.
In the past 16 years, industrial production in the economies in transition tumbled in real terms by more than 60 percent. The monthly salary in the poorer bits equals the daily wage of a skilled German industrial worker, or one seventh the European Union's average. Gross domestic product per capita is less than one third the EU's. Infrastructure, internal and export markets, state institutions - all crumbled with dizzying speed.
In some countries - not the least Russia - privatization amounted to a mass transfer of assets to cronies and insiders, often well-connected members of the communist nomenclature: managers, members of the security services and other penumbral figures. Laws were passed and institutions tweaked to reflect the special interests of these groupings.
"Classical" forms of crime flourished throughout the benighted region. Prostitution, gambling, drugs, smuggling, kidnapping, organ trafficking and other varieties of delinquency yielded to their perpetrators billions of dollars annually. In the impoverished economies of the east, these fantastic revenues - laundered through off shore accounts - were leveraged by criminals to garner political favors, to buy into legitimate businesses and to infiltrate civil society.
None of this is new to Western publics. Rogues and "robber barons" have always doubled as entrepreneurs. The oil, gaming and railways industries in America, for instance, owe their existence to dubious personas and questionable practices. Well into the 17th century, the British sovereign maintained a monopoly on chartering businesses and awarded the coveted licenses to loyal servants and obsequious sycophants.
Still, the ubiquity of crime in east Europe and its reach are unprecedented in European annals. In the void-like interregnum between centrally planned and free market economies only criminals, politicians, managers, and employees of the security services were positioned to benefit from the upheaval.
At the outset of transition, the underworld constituted an embryonic private sector, replete with international networks of contacts, cross-border experience, capital agglomeration and wealth formation, sources of venture (risk) capital, an entrepreneurial spirit, and a diversified portfolio of investments and revenue generating assets. Criminals were used to private sector practices: price signals, competition, joint venturing, and third party dispute settlement.
Crime - alone among all economic activities in communist societies - obeyed the laws of the free market. Criminals had to be entrepreneurial and profitable to survive. Their instincts sharpened by - often lethal - competition, they were never corrupted by central planning.
Deprived of access to state largesse, criminals invested their own capital in efficiently-run small to medium size enterprises. Attuned to the needs and wishes of their customers, criminals engaged in primitive forms of market research, through neighborhood and grassroots "pollsters" and "activists". They responded with agility and in real time to changes in the patterns of supply and demand by altering their product mix and their pricing. They have always been pioneers of bleeding-edge technologies.
Criminals are effective organizers and managers. They excel at enforcing workplace discipline with irresistible incentives and irreversible disincentives, at setting targets and at networking. The superior felonious echelons are upwardly mobile and have a clear career path. Every management fad - from territorially exclusive franchises to "stock" options - has been invented by criminals long before they triumphed in the boardroom.
In east Europe, criminals on all levels, from the organized to the petty, often substituted for the dysfunctional, or ideologically hidebound organs of the state. Consider the dispensation of justice. The criminal code of conduct and court system replaced the compromised and lethargic official judiciary. Debt collectors and enforcers stood in for venal and incompetent police forces.
Crime is a growth industry and sustains hordes of professionals: accountants and lawyers, forgers and cross border guides, weapons experts and bankers, mechanics and hit-men.Expertise, know-how and acumen, amassed over centuries of practice, are taught in the criminal universities known as penitentiaries: roads less traveled, countries more lenient, passports to be bought, sold, or forged, how-to manuals, goods and services on offer and demand.
Profit margins in crime are outlandish and lead to feverish wealth accumulation. The banking system is used both to stash the proceeds and to launder them. Tax havens, off shore financial institutions and money couriers - all form part of a global web. Thus cleansed and rendered untraceable, the money is invested in legitimate activities. In some countries - especially on the drug path, or on the trail of white slavery - crime is a major engine of economic growth.
As opposed to the visible sectors of the east's demonetized economies, criminal enterprises never run out of liquidity and thus are always keen to invest. Moreover, crime is international and cosmopolitan. It is accustomed to sophisticated export-import transactions.
Many criminals - as opposed to the vast majority of their countrymen - are polyglot, well-traveled, aware of world prices, the international financial system and demand and supply in various markets. They are experienced negotiators. In short: criminals are well-heeled international businessmen, well-connected both abroad and with the various indigenous elites.
The Wild East in Europe is often compared to the Wild West in America a century or so ago. The Russian oligarchs, goes the soothing analogy, are local versions of Morgan, Rockefeller, Pullman and Vanderbilt. But this affinity is spurious. the United States always had a civic culture with civic values and an aspiration to, ultimately, create a harmonious and benevolent civic society. Criminality was regarded as a shameful stepping stone on the way to an orderly community of learned, civilized, law-abiding citizens.
This cannot be said about Russia, for instance. The criminal there is, if anything, admired and emulated. Even the language of legal business in countries in transition is suffused with underworld parlance. There is no - and never was - a civic tradition in the countries of eastern Europe, a Bill of Rights, a veritable Constitution, a modicum of self rule, a true abolition of classes and nomenclatures. These territories are accustomed to being governed by paranoiac and murderous tyrants akin to the current crop of delinquents. That some criminals are members of the new political, financial and industrial elites (and vice versa) - tends to support this long-rooted association.
In all the countries of the region, politicians and managers abuse the state and its simulacrum institutions in close symbiosis with felons. Patronage and sinecures extend to collaborating lawbreakers. Veritable villains gain access to state owned assets and resources in a cycle of money laundering. Law enforcement agencies and the courts are "encouraged" to turn a blind eye, or even to help criminals eliminate internal and external competition in their turf.
Criminals, in return, serve as the "long and anonymous arm" of politicians, obtaining for them illicit goods, or providing "black" services. Corruption often flows through criminal channels or via the mediation and conduit of delinquents. Within the shared sphere of the informal economy, assets are shifted among these economic players. Both players oppose attempts at reform and transparency and encourage - even engender - nationalism and racism, paranoias and grievances to recruit foot soldiers.
Fortunately, there is the irrepressible urge to become legitimate. Politicians, who grope for a new ideological cover for their opportunism, partner with legitimacy-seeking, established crime lords. Both groups benefit from a swelling economic pie. They fight against other, less successful, criminals, who wish to persist in their old ways and, thus, hamper economic growth. The battle is never won but at least it succeeds to firmly drive crime where it belongs: underground.
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