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Russia: Analysis From Washington--The International Criminal Threat

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 30 September 1997 (RFE/RL) -- International organized crime increasingly rivals terrorism as a threat to both individual countries and the international system as a whole.

That is the message of a variety of new studies of the problem, including one on Russian organized crime released on Monday by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based research center and think tank.

First, international organized crime has now grown to such proportions that it has overwhelmed the capacity of both national governments and international bodies like Interpol to track and control.

Like terrorism, international criminal groups show no greater respect for national borders than they do for the laws of any particular country.

Moreover, these groups are now so large and so wealthy and so adept at using the transportation and communications that they now operate in effect beyond the reach of either the police forces of particular countries or those of international bodies.

As a result, their illegitimate commerce -- be it in drugs, arms, or cash -- has effectively made them an alternative political state, one that other states do not recognize but cannot yet contain.

Second and even more seriously, international organized crime now threatens the political and social fabric not only within countries but among them as well.

The power and independence of international organized criminal groups means that they can subvert whole governments. As the CSIS report demonstrates, these groups often are stronger than the states on whose territories they originate.

This feature of their existence not only allows them incredible freedom of action -- they may be able to acquire a status effectively beyond the reach of any political elite -- but it subverts public confidence in political authorities and in law itself.

In countries with longstanding democratic traditions, international organized crime has not yet destroyed support for law. But in those making the transition from totalitarianism, the power of these groups has raised questions about the utility of law itself.

And such a loss of confidence in the value of law as a means of organizing society will almost certainly preclude both the institutionalization of democracy and the development of normal relations with other states.

And third, and again like international terrorism, most of the remedies that have been proposed so far appear to be too small to deal with the problem or in and of themselves represent a threat to open societies around the world.

Virtually every study of international organized crime has called both for ostracizing international crime and for improved sharing of information among governments and police agencies so that they will be able to combat it.

But many governments either directly benefit from international criminal groups or otherwise are under the influence of such groups as a result of corruption or bribery.

And the ability of international criminal groups to move quickly limits the ability of this otherwise hopeful suggestion. The power of modern states is enormous, but these international criminal groups are demonstrating that in particular cases their power may be greater.

Beyond such information sharing, however, most proposals advanced so far are either unacceptable to many countries or even worse a direct threat to open and democratic societies.

Few countries are yet willing to cede significant authority to any international body, even if that ultimately proves to be the only way to combat criminal groups that threaten the vital interests of these states.

Even more problematic are proposals to tighten government controls on the free flow of people, money, and goods across international borders. Many students of international organized crime have urged just such draconian steps.

But virtually all such controls, even if they were successful in combating international organized crime, would have extremely negative collateral consequences. They would limit economic growth, and they could undermine democracy and the free flow of ideas.

All these things make designing a response to international organized crime extremely difficult. But the scope of the problem, just like the scope of international terrorism, now means that no country can turn away from the task of trying to do so.
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