Russian aggression in Crimea reveals interesting aspects of using criminal groups in politics
It is not without reason that the Russian separatist movement on Crimean land was led by Sergey Aksyonov, known as Goblin from the crime-ridden 1990s. The leader of Russoye Yedinstvo (Russian Unity), a political party that gained 3 out of 100 seats in the Crimean parliament in the 2010 election, Aksyonov was appointed as “premier” of the occupied Ukrainian peninsula by Moscow during the Crimean crisis. Thanks to his old contacts with the criminal locals, he headed the Crimean self-defence that acted under the close eye of the Russian special services and collaborated with the Russian military when they occupied Crimea, slightly reinforced by the “Cossacks” imported from Kuban and Don in Russia and Terek in Chechnya.
The role of criminal gangs in politics in Ukraine has had little spotlight so far. Some recent researches mostly focus on their impact on the domestic policy through the phenomenon of mafia, and far less so on their role in geopolitics and international conflicts. Meanwhile, the red totalitarian regime already had its own tradition of close cooperation with criminals who were regarded as lesser evil and “closer socially” compared to political prisoners in the USSR.
This is why criminals in soviet concentration camps had many more privileges than political inmates. It was them that GULAG chiefs used to terrorize political prisoners. After 1945, this well-tested machine of criminal management based on criminal inmates willing to collaborate with the prison administration in GULAGs was undermined by the newly-arrived members of OUN-UPA, Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and Ukrainian Insurgent Army. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Russian writer and dissident, once wrote in his most prominent novel that the GULAG administration was afraid of just two categories of inmates – Banderites and Chechens.
After the USSR collapsed, some parts of the one-time empire, including Transnistria in Moldova, and South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, saw attempts to use the criminal world to service of the Kremlin’s political interests. Crimea was no exception. In the early 1990s, it had some of the highest crime rates in the entire Ukraine, with the Donbas as the only rival for championship in the scale of crime.
One of the most notorious figures of that epoch was Yevgeniy Podanayev, a Sevastopol mafia boss who solved any issues with the rival gangs with machine guns. At times, Crimea would see actual battles following the tactics of army units. Podanayev was one of the first mafia bosses who tried to convert his physical power and cash into political activity. To that end, he established the Christian Liberal Party of Crimea. That didn’t go well, though, as both himself, and the party leaders were killed shortly after.
Two other notorious gangs, including Salem (the gang borrowed its name from the Salem cigarette brand popular in Crimea in the 1990s) and Bashmaki (after Viktor Bashmakov, one of its founders and leaders), eagerly cooperated with pro-Russian organizations and Russian special services. All this led the local mafia into politics as the criminals saw pro-Moscow politics as a good business and source of cash. Ukrainian law enforcers and central authorities in Kyiv overlooked the special role of the Crimean mafia which, guided by its own instincts and instructions from the Kremlin, put its own people in the central and regional parliament, councils, executive authorities and law enforcement agencies in Crimea.
The mafia eagerly used Crimean paramilitary groups, such as “Cossacks”, throwing them at Crimean Tatars, pro-Ukrainian rallies and political opponents. Under Yuriy Meshkov as Crimea’s president (the post was introduced in 1994 and abolished in 1995) criminal gangs were not as politicized as they are today. Meanwhile, after financing various pro-Russian groups for a long time, Moscow apparently grew disillusioned with this cash-hungry yet ineffective instrument, eventually betting on specific people who could be handed out weapons and given a task. That is exactly what it did in February-March 2014 in Crimea.
When the Crimean Police Headquarters was headed by Hennadiy Moskal, deputy head of the Verkhovna Rada committee against organized crime and corruption, the thugs were under huge pressure. His successor of Donetsk origin, Anatoiy Mohyliov, let it revive and enjoy impunity. Russian occupiers used the thugs as cover-up and political infantry – they performed the dirtiest acts against Ukrainian activists and military units in Crimea. The latest events revealed that organized criminal gangs can serve as an important element of political strategies.
The thugs proved to easily switch from purely criminal activity to ideological and political banditism and terror against the opponents of their masters, using political slogans convenient for their masters and acting within the outlined ideological framework. The line between politics and criminal activities here is fairly obscure. “Nobody knew where Benya ended and police started,” wrote Isaak Babel, Odesa-born writer, about Benya Krik, a well-known bandit of that time, in his Odesa Stories.
The thugs do all the dirty work for the Russian military and administration. It is for this reason that Putin had long referred to Russia’s aggressive actions in Crimea as those of “local groups”. He did not mention who armed, trained and commanded the thugs, too.
Today, those in Crimea who are a burden for the occupiers face pressure and unbearable everyday life made so by the thugs from the Crimean self-defence. They threaten Crimean Tatars with a new deportation, take over people’s property and kidnap people. The Russian government finds it very convenient to act with the hands of these allegedly “uncontrolled” armed people from behind the stage. If the Kremlin wishes to have an ethnic cleansing in Crimea tomorrow, it will probably do so through the paid thugs. The statements of Crimea’s self-proclaimed premier Aksyonov about confiscation of Ukrainian property in Crimea reveal strong and firmly entrenched criminal instincts. The transition period that will last until 2016, as announced by the occupiers, is likely to turn into a triumph and powerfulness of the Crimean mafia. Without it, the Kremlin’s operation in Crimea would hardly have been as successful.
Russia has used the joint force of Crimean pro-Moscow movements and organized criminal gangs that are hard to distinguish from one another. One thing is clear though: Crimea will now see a surge of crime rates. This will hardly facilitate its economic and tourist development. The local self-defence will become a legal form of banditism, and alternative groups self organized by the locals will probably be the only option for protection from it. The autonomous Crimea will grow ever more into a “pirate republic” like Transnistria, South Ossetia or Abkhazia.
Meanwhile, the rest of Ukraine must draw its conclusions from the Crimean crisis: organized mafia often picks up political “viruses”. In fact, what Ukraine under Yanukovych was moving to was very much like the current Crimea, only on a greater scale. The good thing is that Ukraine’s huge territory will make it more difficult to turn it into a criminal reserve where thugs mix with bureaucrats the way they did in Crimea.
Peaceful coexistence of the state and organized mafia that legalizes itself and stops short of becoming a component to the state administration apparatus, leads its society to a disaster sooner or later.
Maidan 2013-2014 has saved Ukraine from that. Crimea has no such savior. It has fallen victim to the state where the criminal-tycoon system has long legalized itself, entrenched itself firmly, and layered itself over anti-democratic and antihuman traditions that dominated it for ages.