Washington, 11 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - The growth and internationalization of organized crime are a major threat to democratic institutions and free market economies in the post-communist states of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
But the very conditions that have created this threat have also made some of these countries reluctant to act forcefully against it or to cooperate with other states in fighting a menace thad does not respect national borders any more than it respects national laws.
Both this threat and the reasons behind this reluctance are very much on view this week at a two-day conference in Prague. Organized jointly by the Czech Republic and the Council of Europe, the meeting has attracted justice officials from Europe and North America.
Speaking to the opening session on Tuesday, Czech President Vaclav Havel said that one of the reasons that organized crime had become so rampant in the region was that people there have not overcome the attitudes toward the law that they developed under communism.
In communist times, Havel said, most people considered it a point of "honor" and pride to undermine official rules. And such an attitude helped to destroy the old system.
Unfortunately, Havel continued, many people continue to have the same attitude toward law under the new circumstance. Such an approach may help individuals but just as in the past it undermines the system -- but this time one trying to become democratic and market-oriented.
Havel suggested that this threat by virtue of its size and its international character was too large for any one country to overcome. And thus he called on the international community to expand both its assistance and its cooperation.
The Czech president's argument is an important one, but there are three major obstacles to its adoption and implementation in addition to the cultural mindset toward legal institutions inherited from communist times.
First, many in these post-communist states are reluctant to see law enforcement agencies rebuilt because of fears that government officials might somehow misuse these institutions against society as they did in the past.
Consequently, some of them may decide that crime and corruption are part of the price of the transition period they are living through, especially since the line between crime and entrepreneurial activity is still far from clear.
And these attitudes are especially widespread in the numerous countries in this region where the criminal groups are often stronger than the state itself.
Second, many in these often still weak states are reluctant to cooperate in a way that might call into question their national sovereignty, especially when organized crime has the national face of a former imperial power.
Many in the former Soviet republics in particular tend to view organized crime and corruption as a largely Russian phenomena directed against their sovereignty, even though all of them have their own home-grown crimnal groups.
Consequently, many of the people there are likely to see proposals for cooperation as providing not a check on Russian criminal activity but as in fact something that will give Moscow a renewed voice in their domestic lives.
And third, many in these countries are uncertain as to just what kind of assistance they would like to receive, an uncertainty that is mirrored in the lack of clarity in many Western governments as to just what kind of assistance the latter would be willing to provide.
All too many of the law enforcement officials in the post-communist states are holdovers from the communist system. While some of them have changed, many still retain their attachment to the methods of the past.
Consequently, and especially for those in these countries and the West who are concerned about promoting democracy, there is a real worry that giving such holdovers access to new law enforcement technology could by itself pose a threat to these political systems.
But if the obstacles to an intensified fight against crime and corruption are obvious, so too are the consequences of doing nothing. To the extent that it attracts support, President Havel's call to arms against this latest threat to democracy may prove to be every bit as important for the world as were his earlier calls for resisting the demands of communism.