thief in lawAnd now for something completely familiar – in the mafia sort of way.

Here in the post-Soviet republics, gangsters are synonymous with establishment institutions. If your idea of the mafia is limited to drug runs, inner city turf wars, and the occasional Hell’s Angel’s dust up, you’re missing the geopolitical dimension to these states-within-a-state.

In this time zone, a good PR campaign for the leader of the world’s largest stock-pile of nuclear warheads is to take ride with a biker gang that’s agnostic on the rule of law, and turn them into a source of nationalist pride. It’s understandable that Finland accidentally banned Putin because he was put on their organized crime list.

The Laws

Actually, thinking of Russia as a Western-style constitutional democracy based on the rule of law would be your second mistake. Back in 2000 when Putin said he was getting tough on crime (when the mafia were fighting turf wars), he declared a “dictatorship of the law.” The laws he created increasingly put more power in the hands of the president (the power vertical), limited democratic dissent, and allowed “extremists” to be assassinated, even abroad. The definition of “extremism” includes “humiliating national pride” and “slandering an official of the Russian Federation.” Also, in which other country is the president himself a “guarantor of the constitution”?

Far from protecting people from arbitrary actions, the rule of law is there to protect those in power. This was Marx’s original criticism of the rule of law, and as with other famous theories, they’ve made sure it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy over here. The higher up the food chain you go, the greater the protection of the law you have. If the state engages in corruption at the highest levels, too bad for you. In 2008, the amount of siloviki, or ex-KGB men, in positions of power had tripled. Eighty percent of businesses paid an average bribe of $130,000. Check out this 2005 BBC documentary on oligarchs Berezovsky, Khodorkovsky, and Luzhkov- Russian Godfathers(2005) and this scathing CBC fifth estate documentary on Putin (2014).

Here in Armenia, government bureaucracy isn’t the only thing in your way when starting a business. Too much competition for your near monopoly? Just buy off officials to deny the newcomers their permits. Thus, the economy stagnates, but everyone up the food chain is fed and receive their law and order. Or, if you’re into soft blackmailing, consider cutting off the road access to a newly built international school, and demand 200,000 for it to be reopened (luckily there is a less attractive dirt road nearby). Foreign businesses are encouraged to employ their own arbitrators. There have recently been scuffles between a Canadian gold mine and the locals that involves stories about how the Canadians electrocuted their workers if they were too lazy.

You have to remember that these people lived for 70 years with a constitution that said this:

The idea that the law, whether understood as a supra-class norm as an obligation, as an abstract, comprehensive form of justice, or as a natural right of man, rules over the political authority, binding and limiting it, is by its nature a disguise for class dictatorship.

Marxist-Leninist General Theory of the State and Law (1970)

Rule of law is abstract for most, but really abstract here. When I suggested rich people should pay for crimes just as much as the poor, the response was “Really Mr. Siebert? If you committed a crime and you had the money to get out of jail, wouldn’t you do it?” It’s obvious, right? No wonder the majority of Armenians avoid the courts.

The culture of bribes starts early. Strangers regularly hand out pieces of candy to children, and bribes seem to be the primary go-to behaviour management for nannies. There is a whole row of candy in our neighborhood store (along with the entire row of vodka). Anytime our kids scream in the taxi, there is the driver, prepared with a piece of candy to bribe them. A regular piece of candy for the police is about $10 USD.

The In Laws

“Fughettaboutit,” says Al Pacino. What does corruption have to do with the mafia? Everyone in Armenia talks about the mafia in cynical off-hand remarks – either as a joke about qyartus, or as short-hand for corruption in general.

I asked a number of people, including a taxi driver, business owner, and neighbours what they think when I say “mafia”. “Gangsters, Police, Business, Politicians… it’s no difference, they are all the same.” Someone’s relative just had surgery. “You pay the doctor a tip, you pay for this, for that, you never know when you pay enough.” To the man on the street, it’s all part of the same river, and he is downstream.

The official word is that government downplays “systematic” corruption, in favour of dealing with individual cases. The word on the street is that all systemic corruption comes from mother Russia

But thinking of the Armenian or Russian Presidents as thugs too easily dismisses the type of people they have to deal with in order to reign in the forces of chaos. Among the theories concerning the murder of Kremlin opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, the scarier version is that Putin really isn’t in control – that he isn’t calling the shots. Forget Aspergers or mental illness, the thought that the mafia or the ultra-fascist National Bolsheviks are conducting massive war games is really The Sum of All Fears.

Alexander Dugin, the ultra-fascist Heideggerian philosopher and “Kremlin insider” who’s contacts include foreign minister had this to say about Ukrainians on his facebook page:



“Ukraine needs to be cleansed of idiots. A genocide of cretins suggests itself. Cretins who are virulent, closed for the voice of Logos, deadly and … in addition to this, extremely stupid. I don’t believe that these are Ukrainians. Ukrainians are a fine Slavic people. [But] these are some race of bastards that emerged from the sewage.”

He similarly threatened Armenia:

Last year, Russian extreme right “Eurasianist” ideologue Alexander Dugin predicted in an interview that Moscow would deploy troops to Crimea, about a week before armed military personnel without insignia (the so-called “little green men”) appeared there. In the same interview, Dugin warned that the only available options for Armenia would be “Customs Union [forerunner of the EEU] membership, or bloodshed and disappearance from the map” (, February 20, 2014)

Apart from the theory that Putin will never let go of power because he won’t be able to hide the origins of his 40B fortune, a real worry is that someone even more committed to Stalin’s memory will take power. Perhaps Dugin’s insane apocalyptic vision convinces other powerful guys to follow through on their threats. In 2008, Dugin denounced Putin because didn’t have the guts to go all the way to Tbilisi.

But I digress.

It’s possible that the only thing Dugin and the mafia have in common is a love for the Russian Orthodox church and the eight pointed star – an ancient pagan symbol of chaos. The star, in the form of a prison tattoo, is the defining feature of one of the establishment institutions I was talking about earlier.

The real reason for writing this post wasn’t to talk about corruption or fascism, but the mysterious world of the “Thieves in Law“. These are the elite mafia leadership that control the underground, and generally stay out of the political limelight. There are around 300 of them across Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and other republics.

This is a place where being a Thief in Law was once synonymous with Kingmaker. Sheverdnadze, the Soviet Union’s last foreign minister, was reputed to have been handed the presidency of Georgia in 1992 by a coup organized by a Thief in Law. In Armenia, rumour has it that when people were burning furniture to survive power outages in the 90s, the Thieves in Law made an offer someone couldn’t refuse, and let there be light for the entire city of Yerevan.

So how do you get this powerful? Well, first you go to prison. There prove your “honour,” or rather show that you are unbreakeable, follow through on threats, and mercilessly protect your reputation. Only then do you receive the almighty eight pointed star as a tattoo under both shoulders. At least one third of these elite gangsters are of Georgian descent, and the annual induction service for new members in Georgia is as secretive as the Vatican conclave – they even signal their decision by smoke from a chimney.

In the post-Soviet confusion over whether laws or out-laws are just, the Thieves have earned the reputation of Robin Hood. Theft, whether during the Czar’s rule or Bolsheviks, was always a crime against the state, and more than one Thief in Law was created by the unsavoury choice between a treasonous head of cabbage or starvation.

Borne from the Gulag underground in the 1930s, Thieves in Law still maintain the patina of original innocence. They cultivate the moral reputation of a Solzhenytsin – the suffering prisoner who lives like a monk, is exiled by his own land, and toils night and day to expose the lies of the state. Build an Orthodox Church, and gain the sympathy of the people. Their piety comes straight from Matthew 6:3 –

But when you give to the needy, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing

Alimzhan Tokhtakhunov, an “alleged” mobster from Russia on the FBI’s top 10 list, is a popular figure who lives openly and enjoys the see-no-evil policy toward the In Laws. Leonid Bulinov shelled out 600,000 dollars to build a Russian Orthodox church in Cannes, and was cleared from legal charges in Moscow, despite a candid confession to a life of murder.

“Who is the bigger criminal?” Says Bulinov, “The one who leaves hundreds of thousands of people destitute, without money to subsist on, or the one who picks pockets?” Check out this eye-opening documentary, which interviews some of the most powerful Thieves in Law (warning – a few graphic images):

Picking pockets is a little bit of an understatement. The moral code of the Thief in Law, if it can be called such a thing, redefines the concept of honour as power, and reputation. As with Al Pacino’s character in Donnie Brasco explains, you never disagree with a “made man,” or talk trash behind his back. There is a reason Thief in Laws are made in prison, and nowhere else.

Philanthropy is a thing with mafia, not just for PR and whitewash, but because the mafia functions as a state unto itself. A society of outlaws needs protection and the ability to negotiate disputes, especially if you were a capitalist in the Soviet underground.

It was a simple question that got me going. Why is Armenia so safe and the crime rate so low given all this talk about mafia?

I mean, everyone here is just nice. Way too nice. Is it religion? The lack of things to steal? The closed borders? Drug use just started to take off in the last couple years. Human trafficking is a problem. But where are the turf wars and street clashes?

I have students with full-time body guards that drive cavalcade style to school everyday – probably for a reason. Usually I hear jokes about harmless mafia wannabees with their junk white Russian Lada’s with black tinted windows, blaring rabiz folk fusion techno. I’m starting to see those jokes not as a source of ridicule, but as a rationalization for the ludicrous imbalance of power these kids observe.

And it’s a lot funnier when none of the painful bits are reported in the media. You’ll read lots about systematic corruption, but never reports on individual cases (the same limit of journalistic integrity yours truly shall also strive for). This doesn’t mean that everyone’s in the dark about who owns what business, which relatives of some minister are thugs, and who is getting screwed. People talk, and this is very small country, where the Porsches and black tinted Mercedes G-class SUVs are parked next to the white Ladas for everyone to see.

It’s tempting to buy into the legend of Robin Hood,  especially when the world is being sucked dry by state sanctioned greed, propped up by nice words like “free” (market) and “rights” (to property gained by the eviction of peasants). Haven’t US diplomats installed barbarous strong-men for the sake of stability, at the expense of conscience and credibility?

But the Soviet system was a moral vacuum like no other, where the idea of conscience itself was systematically uprooted. Philanthropic hit-men, if we can call them that, were feudal lords in a time of crisis, but when the crisis is over, “dictatorship of the law” takes on a whole new meaning.

Colombian drug-lord Pablo Escobar built a whole neighbourhood in Medellin where thousands of people once lived in a garbage dump. People loved him because he was their king. Then the King died, and all hell broke loose. But not before Escobar declared an all out war on the state and Medellin became the murder capital of the world. Near one of these poor neighborhoods my father was almost shot and killed because he honked his horn at car parked in the middle of the road. (ESPN’s Two Escobars is one of my favourite documentaries of all time, which I showed in all my Spanish classes)

Robin Hood will never be the king. Instead, he is living like a late Roman Republic patrician, for the sake of wealth and power, not justice. The Thief in Law began as a revolt against arbitrary rules. Now he basks in them. Like parasites, they feed off the sick constitution.

In his TEDx talk on the decline of Thieves in Law in Georgia, Gavin Slade describes how they are loosing their relevance and traditional code of “honour” because their societal function as states-unto-themselves is less in demand:

Georgia’s transparency rate has increased, and according to this cryptic Armenian “news” story, the same is starting to happen here:

Thieves in law are leaving Armenia, Zhoghovurd writes. According to the newspaper, as a result of pressures by police, thief in law Rafo left the country last night. In addition, criminal authority Arthur Ghazaryan, nicknamed Tuy, who had been traveling in an armored car, departed from the country a few days ago.

Yeah, for a holiday to Miami? Fughettaboutit.