Accessibility links

Breaking News

Corruption Watch: February 20, 2003

20 February 2003, Volume 3, Number 6
Russian President Vladimir Putin told French television channel TF1 on 11 February that Al-Qaeda continues to send money and instructors to Chechnya. According to a report by AFP on 11 February, Putin said, "There is still Al-Qaeda money [in Chechnya], Al-Qaeda instructors, mercenaries from several Muslim countries who are recruited by fundamentalists."

French President Jacques Chirac told Putin during an official dinner on 10 February that the conflict in Chechnya "cannot be solved through military means" and that the civilian population in the republic was paying a heavy humanitarian price. Putin replied that he understood the concerns of the country's Western partners on the issue. RK

In mid-January, Iranian security forces uncovered and dismantled a network used to smuggle Afghans or Afghan-Arabs -- some of them linked to Al-Qaeda -- across the border of Pakistan into the Iranian province of Baluchestan va Sistan, according to "The New York Times" of 18 February.

According to that paper, Iranian officials said the arrests were not motivated by fear that the United States might threaten an attack on Iran, especially if Al-Qaeda operatives are discovered on Iranian soil. The officials insist that Iran opposed the Taliban government for years and nearly went to war against the Taliban in 1998, after Iranian diplomats were assassinated.

"The New York Times" wrote: "The January arrests were part of a larger campaign by Iran to prevent Pakistan from sending suspicious Afghans and Arabs, including Qaeda operatives and drug smugglers, across the border. Iranian officials said that the sweep was the most recent of several major arrests on that border since the American-led war in Afghanistan overthrew the Taliban government more than a year ago.

"Altogether, Iranian officials estimated that hundreds of people had been either arrested or deported."

Does the FBI have a ballpark figure on the number of Al-Qaeda operatives in the United States? It seems there is a great deal of confusion on this point. Writing in "The New York Times Magazine" on 17 February, Noam Scheiber said the FBI told Congress there are some 5,000 of them. "'The FBI doesn't come up with numbers like that,' says a former FBI counterterrorism analyst, Matthew Levitt. 'They're conducting field investigations.'

More to the point, no one can generate an accurate estimate of Al-Qaeda's overall size -- in the United States or elsewhere. Because Al-Qaeda cells tend to graft themselves onto existing organizations -- usually other terrorist groups -- extrapolating from limited data is useless. Not surprisingly, the FBI's final number was more or less a wild guess based loosely on a small number of actual suspects, the number of graduates of Al-Qaeda training camps (current estimates top out at about 15,000, though many did not actually join Al-Qaeda) and maybe some immigration statistics."

As the magazine was going to print, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee that it was several hundred, not 5,000. Even this figure is somewhat vague and difficult to trace. RK

Russia has once again accused Georgia of harboring Chechen separatist fighters, but this time a new wrinkle has been added �- that the deadly toxin ricin is being manufactured in the Pankisi Gorge. Speaking at the 39th Munich Conference on Security Policy on 8 February, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov claimed that "chemical terrorists" arrested in England and France had been trained in the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia and that makeshift laboratories had been built there in order to produce ricin, which would then be used for terrorist attacks.

Georgian authorities deny these charges, but British and U.S. intelligence sources suspect that Al-Qaeda might have set up such facilities after the ouster of the Taliban government in Afghanistan. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told the UN Security Council on 5 February that two Islamic militants who were arrested in France had been active in Pankisi and in Chechnya, and were planning gas attacks on Russia. France is skeptical of the charges, but Russia insists that the Pankisi Gorge is a hotbed of terrorist activity, including infiltration into Chechnya and the manufacture of ricin.

The extraction of ricin from castor beans does not require a great deal of sophisticated equipment. In 1995, two members of the self-styled Minnesota Patriots Council, an extremist organization in the United States, were arrested and convicted of stockpiling ricin. They allegedly had been planning to murder Internal Revenue Service agents, U.S. marshals, and local deputy sheriffs. In a different incident that same year, police arrested an Arkansas man and found in his home instructions on how to manufacture ricin �-in a book that was commercially available. They also found another do-it-yourself book that described how to use toxic compounds to poison people. Ricin is also the poison used to kill Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov in an infamous attack on London's Waterloo Bridge in 1978.

The castor plant is mainly cultivated in India and Brazil, and the poison is concentrated in the bean-like seeds. It is native to the tropics but also grows in temperate climates, where it is used for decorative purposes. A minute amount of ricin can kill in a matter of minutes if inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin. RK

In 1999, the last year of the Yeltsin administration, there were 31,140 reported homicides; in 2000, the number was 31,829 (; by 2001, the figure rose to 33,500. Some 2 million Russians were victimized by crime in 2001, and this number might well be low, given that police concealed many crimes and many more went unreported. The figures cited above are from a report presented by Russian Prosecutor-General Dmitrii Ustinov on 29 April to the Federation Council and to President Putin. In 2001, 884,300 crimes went unsolved. The prosecutor-general went on to say that state-budget money had been mishandled and misappropriated by the Transport Ministry, the Railways Ministry, and Gazprom. Ustinov barely touched on the crime situation in the armed forces, a major center of illegality in Russia. White-collar crime in the country resulted in the theft of 66 billion rubles ($2.1 billion) in 2001, more then twice the amount reported in 2000.

In 2002, Transparency International announced that Russia was one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

Leonid Kosals, a researcher at the Institute of Socioeconomic Problems of Society, which conducted a corruption study in Russia in 2002, told "The Moscow Times" of 8 February: "Police corruption has became such a systematic phenomenon that attempts to get rid of it by merely prosecuting guilty officers are no longer sensible. The authorities know this but do little about it because it is in their financial interests to have corrupt officers...Thus, the ruling clans feel comfortable with corrupt police officers. They are more manageable."

A number of high-profile contract murders took place in Russia in 2002 -- none of which had been solved by the time this article went to print. The murder on 21 August of Lev Golovkov, a member of the State Duma and co-chairman of the Liberal Party, evoked loud protests. Aleksei Busalov, chief expert of the Moscow Property Committee, was shot and seriously wounded on 19 July. Magadan region head Valentyn Tsvetkov, generally regarded as having sought to end criminal dealings in his region, was murdered on 18 October. On 18 December, Duma aide Mikhail Grishankov was murdered in St. Petersburg; he was suspected of involvement in illegal gold dealings. These became monthly news events. By the end of the year, it seemed that something akin to the Yeltsin years was taking place. Once again, contract killings had become a common occurrence in Russia, and the police were helpless in the face of the challenge. As Lieutenant General Aleksander Gurov, head of the Duma's Security Committee, said on 9 October, "People who plot murders no longer fear the police. They believe they can escape punishment by outwitting or bribing the police."

But it was not only the seemingly incompetent Russian law-enforcement agencies that could not or would not stem the tide. Those who controlled the police seemed to be protecting criminals. In 2002, a Swiss court found Pavel Borodin, the former Yeltsin aide and Kremlin property manager, guilty of laundering almost $22 million and sentenced him to pay a fine of $175,000. Borodin, living in Moscow, refused to acknowledge the sentence or pay the fine. He even had the temerity to let his press spokesperson put out a statement claiming that the Swiss court had found him innocent of all charges. At the same time, the Russian government refused to punish Borodin, their subject, for crimes that had been documented and proven in a Swiss court. A similar fate befell a known Russian arms smuggler to Africa, Viktor Bout. Wanted on an Interpol warrant by Belgium and Britain on charges of arms smuggling to African states under a UN arms embargo, Bout escaped his pursuers and returned to Moscow, where he boldly went about giving interviews on Russian radio stations. Russian authorities did nothing to honor the Interpol request for his arrest, and he is living unconstrained in Russia. Another high-profile criminal who seems to enjoy the protection of the Kremlin is Valerii Cherny, the head of Aviatrend, a company named by a UN investigation as having conspired with Bout in arms trafficking to Africa. Cherny was also deemed by Hague war crimes tribunal prosecutors of being implicated in illegal arms sales through Borislav Milosevich, Slobodan Milosevich's brother, for the Yugoslav war effort during the arms embargo on that country.

A number of prominent Russians suspected of high-level organized-crime activity by Western law-enforcement agencies are living freely in Moscow and other cities. Some often appear on television and on stage and are held in high regard by the government, as well as by their audiences -- which include, among others, the closest relatives of highly placed Russian and Ukrainian elected officials. Famous Russian singer Joseph Kobzon is a case in point. Characterized by former FBI agent James Moody as "one of the most influential criminals in Russia," he is banned from traveling to the United States yet enjoys a privileged life in Russia. In 2002, Kobzon even recruited two former prime ministers of Russia, Nikolai Ryzhkov and Yevgenii Primakov, to sign a letter addressed to Putin asking that Kobzon's name by cleared by an investigation of his activities.

Putin's Russia seems, in fact, to have become a sanctuary for criminals. Semen Mogilevich, reputedly the head of an international organized-crime group, is living peacefully in Moscow, where he continues to engage in dubious activities. Recent reports link him to the Russian state gas monopoly, Gazprom, in what many consider to be a massive capital-flight scheme.

One measure used by many experts in determining the confidence businessman have in the government is the flow of capital into and out of a country. In Russia, with a history of severe capital flight since the collapse of the Soviet Union (some estimates place such flight at $ 150 billion), this drain has continued during the Putin presidency. In 2002, it was estimated at $25 billion. Clearly, this exit of hard currency into offshore havens has an impact on the Russian budget and on social services in the country.

Why does Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer who is now president of the Russian Federation, tolerate this? This question has fostered much speculation. He cannot feel comfortable knowing that criminals might be holding the society that elected him hostage. He must know that he arguably shares power with an invisible government of mighty and highly placed crooks who are stealing Russian resources from under his nose.

One theory is that Putin, while uncomfortable with this situation, is delaying a resolution until he can solve his other priorities: Chechnya, economic and fiscal stability, a functioning health-care system, and an effective law-enforcement apparatus. This might be so; but then again, if he allows the criminalization of Russia to continue while solving other problems, he might wind up in a no-win situation.

A second possible explanation is what might be deemed the evil view of Putin. Some suspect that he is the ultimate "krisha" for crime in the country. "Krisha," or roof, suggests a protector for what goes on. This school of thought has it that he decides whom to punish and when -- if punishment will serve his needs. Putin, they say, is using organized crime for his own ends. He is helped in by a St. Petersburg group of friends (known as the "chekists") who are perceived as his core group of supporters. Some in this so-called St. Petersburg group are themselves tied to criminal groups, and allegedly have the president's blessing to continue with their schemes.

As evidence of the Kremlin's involvement in crooked dealings, some have pointed to the recent privatization of Slavneft, a Russian state oil company. The company was bought by Siberneft for $1.86 billion -- which many claim scandalous, given that other companies, pushed out of the auction, were willing to pay up to $3 billion for the company. The widely alleged reason this took place was that Siberneft, and its owner, Roman Abramovich, had passed over to the Kremlin control of Russian television's RTR, a highly popular network. In return, the theory goes, they got Slavneft. The recent decision by Putin to delay badly needed reforms at Gazprom and the removal of the head of Gazprom-owned NTV, Boris Jordan, and his replacement by a St. Petersburg loyalist only tend to strengthen these arguments.

Still a third view is that the problem is too great to control. Crime and corruption in Russia has reached such epidemic proportions that nobody can stamp it out and only time and a few generations can make a difference. The level of corruption in the regions of Russia is beyond comprehension and makes Moscow look like the Vatican by comparison, the theory goes. The strategy seems to be to contain crime to its present levels and hope for the best. All that appears feasible and politically expedient in Putin's Russia is thus to be to keep the streets reasonably safe, for that is where voters walk to the polls.

The criminalization of Russia has not gone unnoticed by the West, but neither has the West done anything meaningful to help stem the tide. Western European governments, reliant on Russian natural gas (Russia supplies some 25 percent of Western Europe's natural gas) have kept silent about the charges being leveled at their Russian partners for fear of having their gas supplies cut off. Warnings of the dangers of Russian organized crime issued by Europol and other law-enforcement agencies are ignored and swept under the carpet in the hope that they will simply go away. Russia is being touted as a reliable partner in the war against terrorism, and thus has become seemingly immune to criticism for widespread criminality. Most Western policymakers are largely ignoring the dramatic increase of Afghan heroin flowing from Russia and Central Asia to Western Europe, for instance.

The invisible government that in fact controls a good part of Putin's Russia is not represented at meetings of heads of state or the United Nations. It operates outside the established mechanisms of international dialogue and is immune to international sanctions. Failure by Putin and his administration to stem the growing tide of crime and corruption will only make a bad situation worse for millions of Russians who certainly deserve more after the fall of communism. RK


By Katka Krosner

Back in 1997, airports in 40 countries across Europe agreed to work toward voluntary common rules to tighten and standardize aviation security.

But in the days following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, European Union institutions stepped in to make those guidelines legally enforceable across the 15 EU member states, saying the attacks gave "new impetus" to reinforcing aviation security. After more than one year of bureaucratic wrangling between the European Parliament and the European Council, those common requirements finally took effect last month.

The EU institutions based their legal requirement on the so-called Document 30 drawn up six years ago by the European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC), a Paris-based intergovernmental organization, setting out specific aviation-security standards. One key requirement contained in that document is that airports should have achieved 100 percent hold-baggage screening for all flights by 1 January.

Ideally, say ECAC, airports should be installing Explosives Detection Systems (EDS) machines to meet that screening requirement. But acknowledging the cost and practical barriers of doing so, the organization says airports can also meet the "100 percent hold-baggage screening" requirement using traditional X-ray machines and a set requirement of 10 percent of hand searches.

"It would not have been possible to achieve 100 percent baggage screening any other way," said Gerry Lumsden, ECAC's deputy executive secretary, while conceding that EDS machinery was the most-highly technological equipment currently available.

In recent months, many airports have installed EDS machines, which are hugely expensive, bulky, and take months to manufacture.

Operator Paris Airports, for example, has invested $125 million in 100 new EDS screening machines, together with recruiting and training 1,500 extra security personnel. Frankfurt's airport has just hired 750 extra security specialists to staff 40 new X-ray control stations.

"Every single one of our member airports says that they have already met this deadline, and we are delighted. It was very ambitious," added Lumsden.

Still, in those countries outside the EU, the guidelines remain voluntary, and as such there is no legal requirement for all luggage arriving in the EU to be properly screened.

Some airports, particularly in holiday destinations in countries such as Spain and Portugal, had expressed concern about the expense of installing expensive new machinery.

In accepting the ECAC document, the EU also says it is reasonable for exceptions to be made -- at member countries' discretion -- at airports with less than two commercial flights per day or with only general aviation flights.

At small airports, it says, common basic standards might be disproportionate or impractical. In such cases, the appropriate authorities of the member states may apply alternative measures providing an "adequate level of protection."

Another key aspect of the new requirements is staff screening. All staff must be properly screened before entering security-restricted areas, although the requirement allows for an exemption of "appropriate" random screening where 100 percent staff screening is not possible before January 2004.

But even with the legal requirement in place, one key issue remains: Who foots the bill?

The European Parliament is pushing for all member governments to fund a "fair share" of increased aviation-security measures, arguing that a terrorist attack against the aviation industry is an attack against the state and therefore the state should help meet the huge cost of increased security.

Most governments, however, have steadfastly refused to cough up in stark contrast to the United States, where the administration quickly allocated $3 billion to the air-transport sector to fund additional security measures.

Instead, the European Commission has ordered a review of individual funding arrangements throughout its 15 member states ahead of issuing any concrete position. ACI Europe, the association representing airport operators, says that since airports are national frontiers, the responsibility of ensuring the highest possible security levels for citizens lies with governments. So far, there is no indication as to how long such a study might take.

And while airports are committed to meeting the standards, they are angry that they have been left to foot the bill.

"This is a watered-down agreement on funding. The onus is currently on each country to decide how to fund aviation security �- and we believe that financing needs to be more coordinated at a European level. Airports are left stranded in terms of assistance toward meeting higher security costs post-9/11," said ACI Europe spokesman Ronan Anderson.

In the meantime, airports are finding ways of funding extra security measures. Operator Paris Airports has raised its passenger tax from last year's $3.80 to $8.60 this year to fund the extra security measures, says Paris Airports spokesman Jacques Reder.

British aviation-security expert Norman Shanks points out that Document 30 is not as tough as standards in countries such as Britain, where 100 percent baggage screening was implemented several years ago in reaction to the bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland. There, too, staff screening for restricted areas is much tighter than Document 30 requirements, and Shanks says the chances of would-be terrorists being caught in the United Kingdom are "significantly higher." "All staff should be screened to eliminate the risk of terrorists but also the chance of staff being held to ransom," he said.

Funding has not been the only problem in meeting the new standards. Housing the bulky machines, and even getting hold of them at all, has proven problematic.

Joaquin Carvalho, director of security at Portugal's Civil Aviation Authority, admitted there have been delays of four to six months in installing new EDS machinery due to delays in delivery. "We expect to start the installation of new EDS machines from April at our five international airports. In the meantime, we are meeting the deadline through use of the older X-ray machines and TIP equipment instead of hand searches," Carvalho said.

The regulation also allows for unannounced inspections to monitor security measures.

Despite technological advances, the human factor and heightened awareness remains crucial. EDS machines currently have a false alarm rate of around 30 percent, said Shanks.

And then there is the issue of bringing cargo-screening levels up to those of passenger baggage.

But at the end of the day, is it good enough to set out security regulations with a list of exemptions and merely make them law in several countries without any clear guidelines on who pays? "This has to be good enough, because not every airport can afford high-technology machines. Everything has a weakness, but these requirements give us better protection against terrorist attacks," said Shanks.

(Katka Krosnar is head of the Prague News Agency)