Putin’s Russia ‘virtual mafia state’

MOSCOW – Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin told United States officials to keep their noses out of Russian affairs in a combative response to criticisms of the way his country was run revealed by leaked diplomatic cables.

His appearance on the US talk show Larry King Live came even before new cables were published yesterday that suggested Russia under Putin was a “virtual mafia state”.

The new WikiLeaks cables detailed a political system that incorporated money laundering, arms trafficking and which had fostered close links between organised crime and the security services.

The Guardian newspaper reported that bribery alone totalled an estimated US$300 billion ($397 billion) a year.

It said allegations in the cables included Russian spies using mafia bosses for arms trafficking; police and spy agencies operating a protection racket for crime networks; bribery being a parallel tax system to enrich police, officials and Federal Security Services; and Putin compiling “illicit proceeds”.

The claims come chiefly from Spanish prosecutor Jose Gonzalez who, the Guardian reported, has spent years investigating Russian organised crime in Spain.

At a January briefing for US officials, Gonzalez said he had evidence Russia was a “virtual mafia state”.

He had evidence that political parties in Russia worked with mafia groups. He was quoted in a cable saying: “One cannot differentiate between the activities of the government and OC [organised crime] groups.”

The Guardian reported that he alleged intelligence officials arranged gun shipments to Kurdish groups and were behind a ship last year suspected of carrying missiles for Iran.

In one cable, US Ambassador John Beyrle cited a source as saying: “Everything depends on the Kremlin … many mayors and governors pay off key insiders in the Kremlin.”

The Guardian said that underneath the Kremlin, top officials were collecting cash based on bribes. Further down the security agency, the Interior Ministry and police collected protection money from businesses.

The New York Times said a cable mentioned a Swiss oil-trading company as “rumoured to be one of Putin’s sources of undisclosed wealth”, owned by someone “rumoured to be a former KGB colleague of Putin’s”.

Other cables suggested the murder of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in November 2006 was likely to have been carried out with Putin’s knowledge, according to the most senior US diplomat in Europe.

This latest WikiLeaks release reveals that in a secret conversation with a French diplomat in Paris, US Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried questioned whether rogue elements in Russia’s security services could have carried out the hit in London four years ago without Putin, who was then President, being aware , given his “attention to detail”.

His remarks came just two weeks after Litvinenko died from polonium-210 poisoning in a London hospital.

The cables refer to a meeting on December 7, 2006, between Fried and Maurice Gourdault-Montagne, a senior diplomatic adviser to Jacques Chirac, France’s President at the time.

The revelations will likely embarrass both Gourdault-Montagne – who is now France’s Ambassador to London – and Fried, who is now a special envoy ordered charged by President Barack Obama to close with the task of closing down Guantanamo Bay.

Nor will the release help efforts on the part of both the Kremlin and Downing St to move on from the Litvinenko affair and the extended diplomatic fallout it caused.

One of the US cables released earlier this week said “Russian democracy has disappeared” and described the country’s Government as “an oligarchy run by the security services” in a statement published by WikiLeaks and attributed to American Defence Secretary Robert Gates.

Yesterday, Putin remarked tersely that Gates was “deeply misled” and advised Washington not to meddle in the political systems of other countries.

He said he found the US presidential voting system unfair but accepted it was a tradition.

Putin also promised that Moscow would be forced to deploy new nuclear weapons and “strike forces” if Russia was shut out of Nato plans for a new missile shield.

The WikiLeaks documents have exposed a consistently critical line from US officials towards Russia. Putin appeared particularly irritated by another leaked cable quoted by the New York Times, which cast a wry look over Russia’s ruling “tandem” of Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev.

The President is constitutionally much more powerful than his prime minister but, in reality, Putin has the most authority and many expect him to return to the Kremlin in the 2012 election.

One diplomatic cable referred to Putin as “Batman” to Medvedev’s “Robin”; another called the hardman Prime Minister an “alpha dog”, while the President was described as “pale and indecisive”.

“To be honest with you, we didn’t suspect that this would be done with such arrogance, with such a push and, you know, being so unethically done,” Putin said.

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