WASHINGTON -- In 1988, just at the time when the former Soviet Union was collapsing and beginning to "privatize" its huge communist industrial enterprises, I happened to be in Moscow talking with our ambassador there, Jack Matlock.
"How many 'free rubles' are there in Russia?" I asked Ambassador Matlock, one of our most perceptive and accomplished diplomats, referring to the rubles not controlled by the official Soviet state but which were in private hands.
"Billions," he said, as we sat talking in the beautiful, historic Spaso House, long the home of the American ambassador.
"And in whose hands are they?" I continued.
"The mafia's," he answered without pause.
"And so the mafia is going to buy up Russia?" I went on.
He looked at me, I recall, with a sad look. "Yes," he answered.
I remember that December in Moscow because I have tried over the nearly 10 years since then to find evidence that we were wrong in our fears. I did not want to believe what I supected: Russia, the whittled-down descendant of the Soviet Union, was going to become the first major criminalized state in our times. Now it is time to stop denying.
On top of many other indicators, a report by a distinguished group of Americans, unassailable in their integrity, paints a horrific picture of the Moscow regime. "Russian Organized Crime," the just-released report of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says clearly that "there now is ample documentary evidence of the criminalization of Russia's economy and politics."
That wonderful "privatization" of the rigid, unproductive Soviet economy that Ambassador Matlock and I spoke of in 1988? According to the Russian Academy of Sciences, "55 percent of the capital and 80 percent of the voting shares in those enterprises were transferred, during privatization, into the hands of domestic and foreign criminal capital."
The numbers of racketeers? According to Russian statistics themselves, there were 785 organized crime groups in Russia in 1990. That rose to 5,691 by 1994 and to 8,000 by 1996. At the same time, the United Nations places total membership in Russian organized crime at a staggering 3 million individuals!
The danger of Russian organized crime dealing in nuclear weapons? "A decade ago, the Soviet Union had very tight control over its nuclear operations," Judge William Webster, director of the FBI in those years, said in a press conference here after the release of the report. "There were a whole series of controls. We felt very secure.
"Today, their scientists are not being paid, their soldiers are not being paid. Even the government is not sure it can count on people." He summed up: "We focused on this problem at a seminal time when we still can do something."
But what? "The first step," Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said at the press conference, "is to recognize the problem. Our troubling conclusion is that the government of Russia today is not its own master, much less the representative of the people. These are not rogue operations; instead, the rogues have suborned the government."
But recognizing the problem is exactly what is not happening in this administration. From the very beginning of President Clinton's term, the euphoric wishful thinking was that the "New Russia" would inexorably become democratic and free enterprise. Give them time! Wish them well! Get them into Bosnia and into NATO, and we'll all work together and it will all turn out OK! There are no bad boys.
But think about it in a counter way.
Russian troops are in Bosnia, patrolling next to Americans. What if Moscow's real policy is not to work together, even imperfectly, but to do business with the criminal bands of Bosnian Serbs who clearly have "business" relations with the Russian mafia? The Russian government has representatives in the very heart of NATO in Brussels. What if those military men are actually members of, or simply paid off or threatened, by one of the thousands of brutal Russian criminal gangs?
We don't even have to take these Americans' word for it. Russian President Boris Yeltsin himself recently said, "Criminals have today brazenly entered the political arena and are dictating its laws." Russia's former minister of defense Igor Rodionov has warned that "Russia will soon reach a limit beyond which we will not be able to control missiles and nuclear systems."
But perhaps the most courageous -- and correct -- statement came from the prominent Russian economist/reformer Grigory Yavlinsky, when he said last June: "An enormous amount of of time and money has been spent by the U.S. government, by the private sector, by foundations and universities in promoting the myth that Russia has achieved democracy. It would take great courage to admit that the taxpayers' money was wasted. But it is always better to be honest.
"Do not give up on Russia. Tell the truth to us and yourselves."
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