Thursday, March 27, 2014

McMafia, A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld, Misha Glenny, a book review

Eastern Europe and Russia

When the Soviet Union dissolved it left secret police and security personnel suddenly on the outs and without paycheck. Given their skill sets, for many, criminal behavior was the logical next step. The party apparatchiks were often out of work too but some were positioned to advantage. Prior to dissolution, national resources such as oil were sold abroad and the profits fed into the soviet system, keeping it alive. The producers shippers, managers etc; of the natural resources were underpaid compared to their western counterparts. Gorbachav attempted to maintain the system, shooting for, in his words, a socialism something along the lines of the Scandinavian countries. Clearly this would not do for the ambitious and unscrupulous, who replaced Gorbachav with the alcohol-drenched Yeltsin. His henchmen changed things in one major respect: the producers continued to be underpaid; the products continued to be sold abroad; but the profits were repatriated, into the hands of those handy henchmen and cronies, creating the first Russian billionaires and plummeting the greater population into immediate penury.
The general population survived, barely, in part by the established practice of home gardening. The criminal class thrived, those who weren't killed in the fierce competition, by following the oligarchic example. Since the first wave had captured the national resources the others had to content themselves with what was left, buying up national industries at bargain basement rates, setting up protection rackets, the shameful practice of trafficking in women, drugs, arms and various other contraband. The protection rackets actually had a positive side since normal law enforcement agencies were underfunded and thus corrupt or incapable of action. The rackets would destroy your business if you didn't pay but they would provide protection from other predators if you did pay. Even the government security people got into it, sometimes actually backing up different criminal factions and fighting each other.
The first wave of diverting profits from national resources created the widespread penury. The practice of funneling huge sums, via money laundering, to safe havens abroad, insured that the penury would be long-lasting, perhaps irreversible. The author describes this as the largest capital flight in history.

In his book, Misha Glenny cites several examples to represent the criminality dominating the former empire. He opens with an instance of violence seeping beyond the former Soviet empire, into Western Europe, the blatant murder of a completely innocent British citizen, a hit gone wrong. Then of a hugely successful 'don”, Ilya Pavlov, who was assassinated in Bulgaria, his funeral attended by, his praises sung by the cream of respectable society. Criminals may be generally despised but highly successful criminals can buy a certain respectability. In Ilya's case his success bought him U.S. citizenship. But his “business acumen” also brought him a sniper's bullet. This was the fate of many as wild west capitalism unleashed a competition of the most ruthless for the exalted status of billionaire. Like their counterparts in the so-called legitimate world, the acquisition of great wealth seems to trigger addictive behavior. Instead of using wealth to free their time to pursue a personal or socially uplifting agenda, imagination fails and a fixation sets in where there can never be enough money and never too much ostentatious consumption.

Interestingly, for the current stand-off in the Ukraine, Glenny spends a good bit of ink on documenting the rise of Ukrainian criminals, their violent takeover of the state, their fall from grace and the courageous citizens who had organized their overthrow, the Orange Revolution, only to fall into fragmented factionalism, leaving the oligarchy to move in and assert control. One thing can be said about the crisis today: it is not about democracy, it is not the left fomenting dissent; it is a struggle of various right-leaning parties, oligarchs and criminals (not always easy to distinguish) vying for a piece of control, with probable meddling by the don of dons, the U.S.

Putin comes out of a KGB background and though he is more or less willing to live and let live with the Russian Mafia, he has surprised many with his crackdown on some elements of the oligarchy. Before one swallows U.S. government highly selective outrage over violation of national sovereignty one should keep in mind that the U.S. itself has invaded and continues to occupy two countries and blindly supports the brutal Israeli occupation and the Honduran coup.

The southern Ukraine, the Crimera, is heavily Russian, with important Black Sea port facilities that it would be na├»ve to think they would simply allow a hostile power to take. Think of the hysteria the U.S. exhibits over the tiny island of Cuba when it fails to bow to corporate rule. And according to some, Putin of course but also others, the Ukrainian overthrow of an elected government is heavily populated by fascists. Why would the U.S. throw its support their way? Is this where we say, they who ignore the past are condemned to repeat it? I mean our government supported the Taliban and what became Al qaeda which resulted in a little blowback there. I suppose it's always the 1%'s knee-jerk response when given the choice between fascism, or independence, and anything not hysterically pro-capitalist – they'll take any flavor so long as its “free market” every time.


Glenny obviously has roots in the area he is reporting on. He outlines the complexity of the various criminal factions and personalities in the former Soviet Union and then jumps to Israel. Once the empire collapsed many Russian Jews, and some who only claimed to be, capitalized on the availability of unquestioned Israeli citizenship for Jews. This was a ticket into Western Europe. Among these new “citizens” were members of Yeltsin's inner circle. As many as a million Russians immigrated to Israel between 1990 and 2000, So many from a similar background of course were drawn to each other, setting up a Russian China Town within Israel, a sector that felt itself superior to Israeli culture, identifying more with Europe and Mother Russia than with Israel. An Israel police official remarked, if only 1% of a million immigrants are criminals we have a major problem. There's that miserable 1% again. One estimate is that 1% of the world's population are sociopaths. Not they they necessarily congregate in the economic 1%. They more probably are dispersed across all classes and make their mischief at every level.

A horrifying example of trafficking from this section was the practice of enticing young women into the country with attractive offers of high paid employment and adventure as au pairs or waitresses. Once in the hands of the criminals the victims found themselves forced into prostitution, virtual sex slaves. They were also forced at gunpoint to call their former friends back home to sell them on the scam. When one of these women got herself free and went to the police she might find herself in the hands of a client of her brothel and promptly returned, then beaten. But she might get lucky and only get put in detention while her deportation is processed. Then when she gets home she's afraid to contact her family because the traffickers might find her. And chances are she is now HIV positive. Traffickers, in my mind, have reservations in the lower rungs of hades, right next to the torture-masters.

Israel became a center for money laundering in the 90s, part of the capital flight out of Russia. Other centers were Switzerland and Cyprus. International deregulation of finance, part of the conservative love affair with privatization, made all this quite easy.

South Asia, Dubai, Africa, South America et al.

Glenny goes on, in similar detail, to describe how criminal organizations came of age in India, contributing to religious intolerance and violence. We go on to Dubai, headquarters of one of India's most notorious criminals, Dawood Ibrahim, getting a tour of the monied city state. Dubai boasts 7 star hotels, the highest building in the world, home office for many criminal chiefs and a hear-no-see-no-smell-no legal and financial system that lubricates their transactions. From here Glenny takes us on a tour of Africa, Asia and South America, revealing the overlap of legitimate and appalling criminal activities and the interaction with politics, ideology and terrorism. The world, as Glenny sketches it, is populated by a desperate poverty that grinds down the meek and rewards the ruthless. Occasional inspirationally courageous and honest persons stand up to a corruption that threatens to engulf humanity in its sociopathic wake. The obstacle that an obsessive allegiance to profit by the legitimate business community poses for our survival, is joined by a perhaps even more difficult one, guided by that same obsession, laid out in fascinating detail by Misha Glenny's McMafia.