Gangster's Paradise

Why we have to use the language of corruption when we talk about politics in Russia

David E. Hoffman is a great journalist, and we're indebted to him for a lot of fine reporting over the years. But I couldn't help feeling, as I read his piece on Russia in the 1990s, that he was writing about a different country from the one that I experienced at the time, as a reporter for U.S. News & World Report and Newsweek ("How'd We Do Covering the Revolution?" July/August 2011). I couldn't quite figure out what bothered me at first. Then I did a search for some key words and phrases. "Organized crime" and "mafia" do not occur. (There is one passing mention of "gangland-style murder," but it's almost an afterthought.) The word "corruption" appears only once -- as something that the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, of all people, was trying to expose. "Salary arrears" does not crop up at all. Boris Berezovsky, the ruthless tycoon who used his control of the most widely watched state TV channel to shill for Boris Yeltsin's reelection in 1996, doesn't figure either. There's only one mention of "Chechen," and that's in connection with the rise of Vladimir Putin.

The Russia I experienced in the 1990s was not facing a clear choice between discredited communism and Western-style democracy -- a binary opposition that nonetheless informed much American news reporting at the time. It was a country emerging from totalitarianism into a period of messy experimentation that could potentially lead to many different outcomes. Hoffman refers to his own optimism about the "fascinating, wobbly, yet striving character of Russia's young democracy" in connection with the 1995 parliamentary election. Yes, Russia was having an election, and that was quite a momentous thing, given its tragic past. Yet he is describing a moment that followed the Yeltsin government's armed suppression of an earlier parliament in 1993, the chaotic invasion of Chechnya in 1994, and a mafia war on the streets of Moscow that same year that ended with the car-bomb assassination of a gang chief not far from the prime minister's house. I guess "wobbly" is one word for it.

In the late 1980s, when Russians were trying to shake off the weight of 70 years of Communist Party rule, it was hard not to cheer for anything that helped them do that. So perhaps there was some excuse for those reporters who couldn't help rooting for the side that seemed to represent greater openness. By the early 1990s, though, the picture had already become far cloudier. I actually have little doubt that most Russians aspired to real democracy and a proper market economy -- meaning not just periodic elections and price liberalization but the authentic rule of law, secure property rights, and an environment that truly rewarded private initiative and political competition. What they actually ended up with was a fairly small part of that menu. If you were a worker in a privatized factory that kept you waiting months for your wages while your mobbed-up bosses publicly exulted in their new wealth (sometimes with the explicit approval of elected local "democrats"), you could hardly be blamed for thinking that something was amiss. There was a story like this on every street corner.

I suspect that we would have done a better job had we paid less attention to the drama of elections and more to the challenges of governance -- a good takeaway, perhaps, for reporters now covering the next phase of the Arab Spring. Corruption and crime fouled the innards of the new Russian regime almost from the moment of its birth, yet these subjects were often treated by Westerners as regrettable marginalia rather than as the fundamental and systemic issues that they really were.

"Why was it so easy for Putin to stymie democracy?" Hoffman wonders. I think this is a rhetorical question. The answer was certainly quite clear to the Russians themselves.

Christian Caryl
Washington Chief Editor
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Washington, D.C.

David E. Hoffman replies:

I fully share Christian Caryl's dismay at the failure to build a rule-of-law state in the 1990s and noted in my piece, "Russian capitalism was born into a vacuum without effective laws and a state that could not enforce those that were on the books." While I did not mention the oligarch Boris Berezovsky in this essay, readers who are interested in more about him might want to look for the updated edition of my book, The Oligarchs, out in September.


Sean McCabe


We Demand a Recount

The country is developing, not failing.

The unsavory inclusion of Pakistan on the Fund for Peace's Failed States Index is discriminatory and an affront to a proud nation of 180 million people (July/August 2011).

The index is hampered by the lack of distinction between a true failed state and a developing state that is effectively functional, like Pakistan. Indeed, Pakistan is the world's 28th-largest economy, with a sizable GDP. It is also among the world's eight nuclear states, and its disciplined army is the fifth largest in the world. The country has democratic institutions in place: a fully independent judiciary, a vibrant and dynamic media, and a civil society that upholds progressive values. In international sports it has world rankings in cricket, hockey, and squash. Despite numerous internal and external challenges, the nation remained united to deal with the mammoth disasters that recently struck the country: namely, the 2005 earthquake and the floods last year that displaced approximately 25 million people.

Pakistan has always sided with the free world, evident from the fact that the country has remained a state on the front lines of war for 20 of the last 30 years -- in the 1980s during the Soviet-Afghan war, which was won decisively, and now, since 9/11, in the war on terror. The democratically elected government of President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has been mobilizing political will to forge national unity to fight terrorism, eliminate extremism, and carry out army operations against militants in the Pakistani tribal belt.

Pakistan's sacrifices in blood and treasure are unmatched by all NATO countries put together, with more than 30,000 civilian and military casualties so far; unabated suicide attacks killing people in markets, mosques, parks, and other public places; and raids on military installations throughout the country. For these burdens and sacrifices, Pakistan is dealt only suspicion and distrust by its allies.

Pakistan is caught up in a very difficult situation. On the one hand, within hours of the Abbottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda declared war on Pakistan and increased the number of attacks. On the other hand, Pakistan was blamed for his presence. There should be no qualms in accepting the fact that bin Laden was not kept in Abbottabad -- he was merely found there. U.S. President Barack Obama's statement on the night after the raid that intelligence provided by Pakistan led to the compound where bin Laden was residing says all that should need to be said.

The international community, instead of putting pressure on Pakistan to do too much, too fast, must support Pakistan in its endeavors to defeat extremism and terrorism. There is convergence on the broader strategic objective of winning the war against terrorism to ensure global peace and security.

Pakistan has an unflinching resolve to emerge as a progressive and prosperous country to play its effective role in the comity of nations. It is well on its way.

Imran Gardezi
Press Minister
Embassy of Pakistan
Washington, D.C.

Nate Haken of the Fund for Peace replies:

Let me be clear: We are not saying that Pakistan is a "failed state." This index does not make that determination. Rather, it identifies pressures on states that put them at risk of failure, unless state institutions are sufficiently professional, representative, and legitimate enough to deal effectively with those pressures.

The point of the Failed States Index is to provide a tool by which all stakeholders, including government, civil society, and the private sector, can clearly see which social, economic, political, and security indicators are exhibiting the most stress, so that everyone can work together for sustainable security and conflict-sensitive development over the long term. Every country in the world has a risk profile. Some states are under more pressure than others. And as Imran Gardezi points out in his letter, Pakistan is under enormous pressure, which accounts for its ranking of No. 12 in our index.

But the most important aspect of the index is not a country's rank in a vertical listing. Instead, what is critically important is the horizontal aspect of the index: that is, the indicator-by-indicator data that identify areas of weakness. For instance, a natural disaster can have a ripple effect across most of the 12 indicators. Floods destroy infrastructure, affecting service delivery. Population displacement can add to issues of group grievance among the displaced and host communities. Relief efforts can have unintended consequences with respect to local economies. Law and order can break down, providing space for armed groups to project their influence. These types of insights can be very useful for policymakers in terms of both prevention and response.

We earnestly hope that this product of our research is understood for what it is and that any controversy it may engender leads to a constructive dialogue over how to make this world a more peaceful place for everyone.