Tallinn, 13 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - Organized criminal groups in the post-Soviet states show no more respect for the borders between these countries than they do for the laws of any one of them. But such groups are quite prepared to exploit the opportunities offered by both in pursuit of their criminal agendas.
And that tendency by itself has introduced a dangerous new element in relations between Russia and her neighbors, one that exacerbates distrust among all of them even as it limits the ability of the political authorities in any of them to manage the situation.
The dimensions of this problem were highlighted at a criminal trial that began in Tallinn last week. There, an ethnic Russian charged with membership in a criminal organization in northeastern Estonia openly acknowledged that his group had sought to play on ethnic tensions in the pursuit of its own activities.
It had done so, he said, by disseminating a broadside (leaflet), purportedly prepared by an Estonian nationalist group calling on ethnic Russians to immediately leave Estonia or face dire consequences.
The criminal group had taken this step, he said, in the hope that the resulting political controversy would divert attention from its own activities, restrain the Estonian authorities from acting against it, and possibly even attract some Russian support.
His expectations on all these points reflect both the power of criminal groups relative to the governments on both sides of the border and the probable interpretations each government and its population are likely to make about events such as the one confessed to in an Estonian court room.
On the one hand, many Russians and even Russian officials are all too willing to accept at face value things like the forged leaflet and to welcome the opportunities such a scandal inevitably gives for putting pressure on Estonia or other countries.
Some Russian officials may even have hoped to use such a forgery in support of the charges repeated last Thursday by Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov that Estonia was discriminating against ethnic Russians.
On the other, some Estonian officials and even more ordinary Estonians are likely to read this report about the origins of this broadside as yet another example of the "hand of Moscow" directed against their country and its independence.
To a striking degree, of course, these contrasting interpretations are in fact mutually supportive. But the confession in the Tallinn courtroom underscores the dangers for each side of interpreting in this way all actions by international criminal groups operating in this region.
For Moscow, these dangers are especially obvious. The Russian government does not control these groups -- at least not all of them and certainly not all of the time. And as a result, it may find itself every bit as much trapped by their activities as are the governments of the other states.
On some occasions, Moscow certainly can and does try to exploit the activities of the criminal international to put pressure on the governments of neighboring states, to push for tighter integration among these countries, and to isolate this region from the rest of the world.
But on many others, the Russian government cannot be happy with its supposed "ally." First, the criminal groups may take actions that undercut Russian foreign policy goals. Second, the growing strength of these groups on the territory of neighboring countries helps to power the growth of organized crime in Russia itself.
And third, the activities of these groups reinforce the widely-held image of Moscow as a center of international organized crime and highlight the weakness rather than the strength of the Russian foreign policy apparatus.
For the countries neighboring Russia, the dangers of such a misreading of the situation may be even greater. If they and their governments assume that all actions by all groups -- including criminal ones -- reflect the wishes of the Kremlin, they will lose out on some important opportunities to benefit themselves.
First of all, such an interpretation of international organized crime as a tool of Russian state policy inevitably makes any improvement in relations between the countries and the peoples more difficult.
Moreover, it complicates what must be a multinational response to a multinational problem. If Russia and her neighbors are to combat organized crime effectively, they have to work together. Imputations of political motives for criminal activities will almost certainly make that impossible.
And the non-Russian countries will gain greater respect from the West if they carefully distinguish the political from the criminal in the foreign relations of this region.
The case in Tallinn shows the difficulties each side faces in overcoming stereotypes, looking at the facts, and then moving on. But it also shows that it is possible to do that, a step that will benefit everyone interested in both stability and law in this region and beyond.