Russia: A Mafia State?

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By Thomas Lowe

The panel painted a largely sombre picture of present-day Russia, overshadowed by a resurgent FSB secret service and their close allies, the oligarchs.

Author of Mafia State and Guardian correspondent Luke Harding began by explaining what it is like to be considered an enemy of the Russian state in the country.

“The sky fell in on my head… someone started reading my emails, strange people came round to the flat, I was summoned by the FSB to be interrogated… and suddenly my wife and two small kids found ourselves plunged into this rather surreal kind of Cold War drama.”

FSB agents often broke into his apartment as part of their psychological assault. The harassment took a number of forms, from setting alarms to ring in the middle of the night, to opening his son’s room window that looked over a ten-storey drop.

“At one point they left a sex manual… next to my bed which had been bookmarked to a page on how to have orgasms properly.”

After months of this Harding wound up in an airport deportation cell.

“I realised that the FSB, this vast, prodigiously resourced organisation is actually quite dumb, because by deporting me of course,” he said with irony, “they never thought I would write a book.”

Dumb and old-fashioned perhaps, but as Russian investigative reporter Andrei Soldatov suggested, incredibly influential.

The service is perhaps stronger now than during the Soviet era, even exercising control over corporations.

“There is no parliamentary control on security services in Russia… members of the FSB are accused of corruption because nobody controls them.”

The oligarchs maintain a tight grip over state assets, said former BBC Moscow correspondent Angus Roxburgh, himself expelled from the USSR in the late 80’s.

“They swap assets around, they sell bits of the media one to the other. It’s the same names that keep popping up.”

One of those names is of course Vladimir Putin, without whom, said Luke Harding, the country’s organisation and his party United Russia would fall apart.

Yet, “Putin’s biggest failure is intellectual. He’s actually failed to come up with a new national idea… There’s no driving concept to it, and in this vacuum what do we have? We have this stonking kleptocracy.”

Susan Richards, founder of Open Democracy, echoed this, saying that the wealth created by oil and gas had served to create an even larger gap between the rich and the poor across Russia, particularly since 2005.

“The elite just goes on getting more and more of the assets, and the rest of Russians are really back in the same kind of problems as they had in the 90s of making ends meet.”

Looking to the future, the panel expressed little doubt about Putin’s likely presidential longevity. There was also consensus that the volatile Caucasus region, including Chechnya posed a serious long-term problem to the stability of Russia.

Amongst bleak commentary on the coming years however, one glimmer of “moderate hope” came from Susan Richards:

“The consciousness of the Russian people is changing very fast now. For example 43% of Russians would see democracy as more important than order now. That’s a big change… People’s heads aren’t trapped underneath the bell jar of Soviet censorship the way they were.”