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30 January, 2014  ▪  Bohdan Tsioupine

Mafia State

Luke Harding is an award-winning foreign correspondent with the Guardian and author of a new book Mafia State: How one reporter became an enemy of the brutal new Russia. A former Moscow correspondent, he is currently based at The Guardian's office in London. In the conversation with The Ukrainian Week, Luke Harding explains why Russia is a “Mafia state” in his opinion and why Ukraine is in real danger of becoming one

UW: What is your book about?

I think the thesis of my book which is not just my view but thesis of most western governments now is that what has happened in Russia and to a degree in Ukraine as well is that there has been a merger between the KGB and organized crime to the point where it is actually impossible to separate the government from the criminal world. They have become one entity. 

And this hasn’t just happened under Putin's rule but I think it’s accelerated under Putin to the point where it has reached an extraordinary level. 

Everyone who lives in Russia recognises that. Whether you are trying to get a kindergarten place for your child or build up a business or just do anything which you take for granted in a normal democratic state, in Russia you immediately collide with this corrupt bureaucracy. 

The code of silence is another matter which I think is very important. It is really almost impossible to know what is happening at the top of the Russian government because those who are there know that loyalty and keeping your mouth shut are two most important things.

Those are mafia principles which extend from Putin downward. For example, nobody knew whether Putin was going to come back in 2011.  Now, of course, we know that he was going to return as president but how many people knew about that decision back then? One? Two or four were involved? So, information is controlled very tightly. I think that’s the model. That model also applies to a greater or lesser extent to almost every post-Soviet country with the exception of the Baltic States. In a slightly more inept way it applies to Ukraine as well.

You can read the original comment from where this assessment has come from a diplomatic cable quoting a Spanish prosecutor who has extensive experience in investigating organised crime in Spain. He describes Russia as a “virtual mafia state” but he also adds that “Ukraine is on its way towards being one”. This was written in 2010 and I think it is still true today.

READ ALSO: Western Role in Ukraine's Turmoil

UW: There is a concept that claims that corrupt politicians and even criminals at some point want to try to legitimise their positions and their wealth. Do you think that in post-Soviet countries, businessmen and politicians are distancing themselves from the criminal world?

Yes and no. They surely do to a certain degree, but the main preoccupation of the Russian elite is to hang on to its assets in other words the money that they have acquired, much of it dubiously. 

They want to keep it and the main way they do that is by offshoring it. These guys in Russia use offshore zones on a tremendous scale. 

They park their assets in Cyprus or Lithuania and they do what people everywhere do but it’s particularly noticeable in London. Here they invest in property, companies, and lawyers. They send their children to very expensive British private schools, top universities and so on. So, sure, they do want respectability.

I think what is quite interesting with the whole Magnitsky debate is that taking away visas from those very wealthy people, some of them public and some little known but all very wealthy chinovniki – officials - is very, very effective.

This is something that strikes fear into them.

It is one thing to be able to go on holidays in Sochi. It is another thing to be able to go skiing in Courchevel or bring your wife to London for shopping trips, to own a flat in Knightsbridge and travel to New York. 

If you can’t do that anymore, what’s the point of having money?

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UW: Protesters in Kyiv and many Ukrainian activists are hoping that the West could impose targeted sanctions against influential Ukrainian politicians and businessmen who represent the ruling elite in Ukraine. But looking from London is that really possible when the British government is so eager to keep Britain “open for business”?

I agree that it would be extremely effective to have a visa ban. If you were to target Ukrainian oligarchs and their children in particular, this would be an extremely effective tool.

But I don’t see any desire for doing this, especially not in London or more generally in the EU, because it would be a pretty confrontational move. 

You just have to look at the foreign policy of the coalition government here which is being remorselessly mercantilist. It is all about trade and business and very little about human rights at all. There is no talk of an ethical foreign policy like there was at one point under the last Labour government, for better or worse. And as far as I can see, David Cameron sees his role in Europe as sort of a promoter for UK plc.

There are also odd political moments. I was in Kyiv when the Euro-2012 Championship took place and Angela Merkel did not come and there was a kind of a semi boycott, but I don’t see any great appetite from European leaders and especially from the British for any real targeted sanctions.

UW: Still, David Cameron said at the end 2013 during the Prime Minister's question time in Parliament that the “world is watching what the Ukrainian government is doing”. Should we take that warning seriously?

No. I’m afraid I don’t think so. I don’t think one should take them seriously. The UK hasn’t even passed the Magnitsky Law. At least in America, the Congress passed the Magnitsky Act and there has been a big coldness in US relations with Russia and retaliatory actions from the Kremlin over the American adoption of Russian children. 

So the Americans actually have done something, but the British have done nothing at all. 

Cameron is focused on domestic policy. He is focused on winning the 2015 elections and, to be honest, Ukraine is far down on his list of concerns. Sure, he makes this kind of statements, but in terms of real actions against corrupt Ukrainian leadership which is going down a non-democratic path, doing “Putin-light” or acting in a “wannabe Putin” style, I don't expect any sharp or meaningful response from Cameron. 

READ ALSO: What Kind of Europe Do We Need?

UW: There is hope in Ukraine and the “civilised world” would somehow help, but what you are saying means that there should no hope of any outside support? Is Ukraine just rolling down the path to become another mafia state like Russia?

No. I am more optimistic about Ukraine and always have been.

I like Ukraine. I have Ukrainian friends. I love Kyiv and when I was a correspondent in Moscow, it was definitely very gloomy and it is even gloomier now.

Whenever I visit Ukraine, I come back with real energy and optimism. Because it’s a completely different country. It is a more plural country for reasons you will understand if you look at the demographics of Ukraine and its civil society.  We live in an era of what you might call a “fast time” when everybody can post and blog and demonstrate and I think what’s happening in Ukraine is tremendous reason for optimism. 

Does that mean that Yanukovych will fall from power any time soon? Probably not. But that means that Ukraine is inexorably changing and becoming more European. I think I’m a long-term optimist about Ukraine but not a short-term optimist if that makes sense. The mafia model is more entrenched in Russia. I think it is different in Ukraine. Yanukovych is not Putin. He does not have the same intellectual capacity and he does not have oil or economic resources. I am relatively cheerful about Ukraine and quite pessimistic about Russia.

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