Not yet a Mafia state

2013-11-14 00:00

LUKE Harding was the Guardian’s correspondent in Moscow for four years until 2011, when his accreditation was withdrawn by the Russian government. No reason was given, but his reporting on Chechnya, the war with Georgia and the state of Russia under Vladimir Putin’s administration clearly did him no favours.

Much of his recently published book describes the harassment he endured from the Federal Security Service (FSB), spiritual successor of Okhrana and the Committee for State Security (KGB), agencies of the Tsar and Communist Party, respectively. His experiences included bugging, surveillance and home intrusions. The last involved persistent, corrosive annoyances such as the resetting of an alarm clock to unnerve his family.

But this did not prevent Harding travelling widely and getting to grips with contemporary Russia. His conclusion is that it is a Mafia state in which the democratic gains made after the fall of Communism have been rolled back. Russia, under the presidency of a man ancestrally steeped in the culture of security, is today a “brutal, autocratic kleptocracy”.

It is a failed state in which the boundaries between government, business and criminality have become fatally blurred, with corruption at the highest levels of the Kremlin. For the political elite, or siloviki, the state functions only too well. Putin is reckoned to be a prime beneficiary. For the South African reader, Harding’s book constantly raises the question: to what extent is our country like this?

It is estimated that bribery in Russia is worth $300 billion per annum, or 18% of the gross domestic product. The very large sums are related to the energy industry and much of this wealth has been removed overseas by billionaires to Cyprus, Spain and Britain. In spite of a democratic façade, the FSB pulls the strings, and through it organised crime has infiltrated government. Commentators have said that while the KGB was a tool of the communist state, the FSB increasingly is the state.

One of the experts on the relationship between the intelligence services, politics and crime was ex-FSB officer and whistle-blower Alexander Litvinenko. He died of polonium poisoning in London in 2006. Andre Lugovoi, accused by the British of Litvinenko’s murder, is now leader of a far-right political party. Russia is a highly dangerous place for crusading journalists and human-rights activists. Anna Politkovskaya and the Chechen activist Natalia Estemirova are the best known of many victims. The prevailing political culture is one of nostalgia for a strong Russian state coupled with paranoia about the West and increasing xenophobia, particularly towards Muslim citizens of the former Soviet empire.

Putin’s United Russia party has a youth wing, Nashi, which behaves in threatening ways and is a cleaned-up version of the old Soviet Komsomol. It is egged on by Putin’s intemperate and often crude language: democrats he describes as jackals, liberals as foreign agents. Like all predatory dictators, Putin, has to work out how to eventually leave office and keep his loot. Factionalism is the outcome, together with rigged elections and what is termed telephone justice.

Journalists and human-rights advocates are relatively safe in South Africa. The justice system, while not without blemish, is well-populated by independent-minded people and elections are administered to a high standard. But there is much in Harding’s account of Russia that is unnervingly familiar and rings local bells. We, too, have, in his words, a “corrupt nexus at the heart of the … state” within which politically well-connected tenderpreneurs, opportunists and crooks operate to their own profit and disturb the country’s shallow democratic roots. The ANC recognises the danger of corruption, but seems unable to curb it because of factionalism derived from competition for business opportunities and resources.

We, too, have a president with an intelligence-gathering and security service background. His extended family has very quickly acquired lucrative business interests and amassed considerable wealth with no known track record. Our country is increasingly under the sway of a hardline security cluster, as is demonstrated by the Secrecy Bill and the obstruction of the public protector’s report on Nkandla. Hard-won freedoms are under threat as the national political centre of gravity moves to the right.

Backing up this power structure is a noisy political youth culture with neo-fascist tendencies that from time to time shouts about killing. The country’s official opposition is described as a cancer and the exercise of freedom of expression is met with threats, although no one has yet gone to prison like Pussy Riot in Russia. The hand of foreign agents is seen in various failings and xenophobic violence erupts periodically.

Is South Africa a potential Mafia state? The test surely lies in the apparently inexplicable. The arms deal, the e-toll system, ease of access and operation for high-profile foreign criminals and, above all, wildlife poaching, are in this category. All point to heavy infiltration of the state by racketeers and criminal business interests. No, we are not yet a Mafia state on the Russian scale. But the potential is there and we’re learning fast.

• Mafia State by Luke Harding is published by Guardian Books.

• letters@witness.co.za

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