Is politics free of criminals? Has it ever been so? In fact, it hasn’t. Far from war criminals, who, as a cynic’s dictionary would suggest, are statesmen who lost the war (whereas the heroes solely remain on the winning side), felons squeeze into politics from time to time. Crooks, charlatans, various other dodgy figures and even mobsters become part of the classe politique. As the witty saying goes, the dividing line between parliament and prison tends to be quite thin.
Politics has always been about a watershed between legitimate and illegitimate figures in power. In fact, legitimacy is the most precious property of politics. Yet well before political leaders reach the heights of legitimacy and law, they tend to draw close to the world of crime. Suffice it to remember Machiavelli’s concept of the prince as un mezzo bestia e mezzo uomo (half beast, half man) to prove this to have always been the case.
A successful ruler who succeeded in his end to unify and centralize the state at any cost becomes a hero, whereas those who did the same as the victorious, but failed to achieve their ends get painted in history as bloodthirsty villains hungry for power. A successful rebel becomes a revolutionary and a reformer, while a failed one is relegated to the margins of political history as the head of a pointless uprising.
Successful dictators and tyrants cannot achieve much without the help of the underworld, for they always need assassins, thieves, crooks, torturers, and manipulators. On a closer look, what we take as the heroic saga of the clash between liberal political regimes and dictatorships is in fact the clash between civilized politics and the brutal exercise of power by criminals.
Even the Shakespearean tragedy of Russia in the twentieth century began as the collapse of a withering, albeit imperial, power and as an onslaught of a criminal element. After all, Stalin, on the rise and, especially, during his Baku period, was much of a mere thug. In more than one way, he was a successful criminal who was uniquely successful in consolidating power and creating his self-aggrandizing myth as the legitimate heir to Lenin, and also as his brother-in-arms and disciple. The Russian state collapsed as it was taken over by a criminal regime disguised as the Universal Church of the Left.
Criminalization of politics and, conversely, the swift politicization of criminal groups and gangs is not an exclusively phenomenon of the dark past, though. Suffice it to recall the beginning of a rapid period of painful change in the former Soviet Union when, to call things by their right names, criminals and various shadowy groups sought to surface by legalizing themselves and their agendas. Some of them were solemnly accepted into the classe politique; others failed to achieve it and were excluded or jailed.
Who were Vladimir Putin and his entourage when their notorious company The Lake came into existence? Who was Viktor Yanukovych in his youth? What kind of political elite exists in post-Soviet countries where wealth was not accumulated throughout decades and centuries, but was instead acquired in the fast lane for state-favoured profiteers protected by former uniformed agents? It could hardly have been something other than a fusion of the so-called siloviki, that is, KGB officers, secret service agents, state-protected thieves, and some entrepreneurs who accepted the challenge of closing ranks ad cooperating with this sinister mishmash left of the former empire’s power machine.
Curiously enough, sometimes they can bear a family resemblance to the powerful and wealthy groups of Renaissance Italy – such as famous families that ruled Italian city-states for centuries. Recall the Orsini family and the Colonna family in Rome, the Medici family in Florence, or the Sforza family in Milan. They had their own court judges, court artists, court scholars, and court historians; quite frequently, they acted not only as political dynasties and noble families but as political groups and crime units as well.
Just look at Mario Puzo’s perceptive novel The Family, which explores the Pope Alexander VI family as a prototype of the modern mafia. His son Cesare Borgia becomes a cardinal in age 18, yet then he abandons his early ecclesiastical career and goes on to reach the heights of genuine political and military glory. Judging by Machiavelli’s account in The Prince, a perfect embodiment and incarnation of un mezzo bestia e mezzo uomo, Cesare Borgia took to the political path as a beast of prey and a merciless killer, yet he ended up as a political visionary and an architect of a unified and strong Italy.
Even for a killer and criminal, a chance exists to become a statesman. Or vice versa. Much of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets may well be described as the metaphysics of crime committed in the name of good and humanity. This has been witnessed by Europe’s historians, dramatists and poets; and we ourselves can testify to this, as we have seen so much turmoil, unrest, and ups and downs in Eastern Europe from 1990 onwards.
What is crucial is whether a family, a household, or a clan, is held superior to the state, and whether they remain opposing agents. However, the worst happens when the two merge. Misdemeanour and felony are inescapable parts of politics until they become watered down, washed away or otherwise marginalized. True, a former felon can become a committed statesman. Unfortunately, we have seen too much of the opposite.