Drug Trafficking in Russia: A Form of Organized Crime?

By Paoli, Letizia | Journal of Drug Issues, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Drug Trafficking in Russia: A Form of Organized Crime?


Paoli, Letizia, Journal of Drug Issues


The decade following the breakdown of the Soviet Union has registered a rapid growth of illegal drug use and trade in Russia. Illicit psychoactive substances were consumed even prior 1991, but the former USSR did not participate significantly in the international drug market either as an importer or exporter. This pattern of relative self-sufficiency, however, drastically changed during the 1990s, at the same time as both the Russian drug demand and supply consistently expanded and diversified. If they can afford it, Russia drug users can today buy the same illicit psychoactive drugs that can be found in any Western European or North American city and that are imported from countries as far away as Colombia, Afghanistan and Holland. As a Moscow drug consumer puts it, "over the past ten years drugs have become accessible to whomever wishes to buy them" (Interview H11).

The expansion of the Russian drug market during the 1990s also entailed the emergence of a nationwide drug distribution system, which brings illicit drugs from producers to consumers, and the consolidation of the professional role of the drug dealer. As much as in Western Europe and the USA up to the mid-1970s, the latter role did not exist in Russia up to the early 1990s. In Soviet times there was no nationwide drug distribution system: Soviet drug users largely consumed illegal psychoactive substances that were available in their region and often either harvested or produced the drugs themselves.

Only with the diversification of drug supply in the 1990s and Russia's entrance into international drug trade did the drug dealer as a professional role emerge to link producers to consumers and to regularly supply large urban centres with a variety of illegal drugs coming from distant regions. Who carries out these intermediary functions in contemporary Russia? Who are the drug traffickers and dealers? How do they operate? Are they organized in large-scale enterprises or are there prevalently small drug dealing groups and single entrepreneurs? To what extent are drug dealing enterprises linked-or indeed superimposed-with organized crime? Is thus drug trafficking to be considered the domain of organized crime, meant as a set of large-scale criminal organizations, or is it merely an organized crime activity which is carried out by a plurality of independent actors?

These are the main questions to which the present article aims to respond. The answers will be largely drawn from a report on illegal drug trade in Russia, which I wrote for the United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention (UNODCCP) (see Paoli, 2001a). In the UN-sponsored project, field research was conducted by Russian scientists and outreach workers and by myself in nine cities, including Moscow, St. Petersburg, Krasnoyarsk, and Vladivostok. All in all, 90 in-depth interviews with different types of experts and 15 with drug users and dealers were carried out. In co-operation with the Research Institute of the Prosecutor's General Office (RIPGO), the author additionally analyzed a sample of drug-related criminal cases and intelligence documents, which were up until now inaccessible to Western scholars.

RUSSIAN LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES' ANALYSES AND STATISTICS

In official reports, Russian law enforcement authorities present a very "organized" picture of the drug trade. In its latest report on drug and organized crime, for example, the Russian Ministry of the Interior (MVD) categorically states that "drug crime is always organized" and the same view was repeated by several law enforcement officers interviewed in Moscow (Interviews A4 and A7). Furthermore, the MVD proposes a very top-down explanation of the expansion of the Russian drug market. As shown by the following quote, in fact, the latter is linked to the integration of Russian organized crime groups into large international drug cartels:

A considerable part of Russian criminal societies have entered into an alliance with international drug cartels and have become an integral part of them. …

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