Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Glasnost and After

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Glasnost and After

Article excerpt

Institutionalized corruption was one reason for the downfall of the Soviet system

In 1987, the "Dictionary of Foreign Words" published in the USSR defined corruption as "Venality and misappropriation of funds by public figures, politicians and civil servants in the capitalist world."

The definition was an absurdly naive piece of propaganda. It reflected a Manichean division of the world into two camps: incorruptible socialists here and corrupt capitalists there. It was also a typical expression of the very real Soviet understanding of the demarcation between the official line and everything else. At a time when corruption was reaching an unprecedented level in real life, any public statement on the phenomenon was held to be defamatory and punishable. Corruption, which officially did not even have a name, had become a typical feature of Soviet society.

By an irony of fate, the general public was becoming aware of corruption at the very time when dictionaries sought to obscure the reality. The revelations of the glasnost (openness of information) period revealed that, in the 1970s and 1980s, corruption was rife at the apex of the pyramid of Soviet power: the Politburo (or political bureau of the Party).

Regional mafias

The economic mafia was the first group in society to take seriously the declarations of Mikhail Gorbachev (elected General Secretary of the Party in 1985) on perestroika (restructuring, renewal). In the same year, it convened a congress of all its groups in the Soviet Union to assess possible threats to it from the Party's new general policy. This anxiety stemmed from the fact that Gorbachev had been close to the late Yuri Andropov, who had headed the KGB (or State Security Committee: the Information Services) between 1967 and 1982. In his day, Andropov had already opposed the "Dniepropetrovsk [Ukraine] mafia" by making use of compromising documents.

When he assumed responsibility for the KGB, Andropov, with the support of Eduard Shevardnadze, the Georgian Minister of the Interior, had begun to reveal the monstrous abuses committed by the Georgian communist party and by its first secretary, whose wife was the local maria's protector. For its part, the Georgian KGB took care to ensure that neither the hidden sponsor nor the thieves were unmasked.

After dealing with the Caucasus, Andropov had even begun to clean up central Asia. But his sudden death in 1984 put an end to his investigations, and the "Dniepropetrovsk mafia" breathed again.

Inquiries were restarted in 1986. This time they were authorized by Gorbachev, who had consolidated his power in the party. They led to the arrest one year later of Churbanov, the deputy Minister of the Interior of the USSR and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev's son-in-law.

In Uzbekistan, in addition to the Minister of the Interior and his inner circle, nearly 98 percent of the regional militia services were arrested. Almost all the regional and district party bosses were convicted of theft, fraud and misappropriation of funds, and of organizing and protecting clandestine trafficking. They got off the hook by claiming that they were obliged to satisfy the increasing demands of the Central Committee, the government and the parliament of the republic.

In fact there was no clear frontier between the official sphere and the world of crime. The party bosses and their guests enjoyed the favours of prostitutes; thieves and murderers performed special missions for the Party, the militia and the KGB. In Moscow during the "years of stagnation" (1965-1985), almost one-third of all prostitutes and black-market currency dealers were agents of the militia and the KGB.

The hub of corruption

During perestroika, the Moscow bureaucracy tried to confine revelations of widespread pillage to the southern republics, thus giving the phenomenon an ethnic slant. The southern scandals were turned to good advantage by the empire, which claimed that the nationalist movements were inspired by local mafias that wanted to escape supervision by Moscow. …

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