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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Criminal Democracy

Racketeering, hostage-taking, bank bombings, contract killing, constant shootouts on the streets and in restaurants, even the use of heavy weapons in disputes between criminals -- all of these things worry today's Russians even more than the increasing problem of unemployment.

In Russia's cities, people are afraid to leave their homes after dark. They start at the sound of a knock on the door. With trembling fingers, a businessman or banker turns the key in the ignition of his Mercedes, for fear he might set off a bomb. Judges hesitate before delivering harsh sentences, afraid of a bullet in the stomach.

This growing cancer is eating away at Russia's nascent market economy. Everyone in Moscow has a different solution. The infamous leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, proposes that robbers and bandits be shot on the spot. Members of parliament, who within a year will face re-election, have promised that upon their return from summer vacation they will create stricter laws against crime.

President Boris Yeltsin recently issued a decree that gives the police and the KGB's successor structure, the Federal Counterintelligence Service, more rights than they are allowed by the constitution. Law enforcement authorities now have the right, without receiving clearance from a higher power, to break into homes and offices, to conduct searches and to examine and seize bank accounts and business documents. Moreover, a person under suspicion may be held in jail for as long as a month without proof of his guilt.

It is difficult to say whether all this will help in the struggle against crime. What is beyond doubt is that this new decree provides unlimited possibilities to criminal groups connected with corrupt regional officials, because the officials can use it to inflict harsh treatment on their competitors. Most Russians, in fact, are skeptical of these initiatives. People are beginning to seek protection elsewhere.

In recent weeks, the television and press have been communicating the dubious idea that public order will be brought about by the criminals themselves. The democratic newspapers publish one article after another about "noble" racketeers. These articles assert that racketeers demand reasonable payments from businessmen and in exchange protect them from "bad" gangsters, take care of their business with the city administration and liberate them from having to pay unfair taxes, which are far more costly than the payments criminals demand.

Attorneys and economists appear on government television and explain that the preliminary stage of the accumulation of capital is always criminal. They claim that as soon as today's thieves and gangsters become rich, they will begin to pour their millions into production, at which point stability will be required of them. Then, having taken seats in parliament and established control over the presidential entourage (and even over the nuclear button), they will lead the country to order.

It is probably true that they will bring about order, just as the godfathers of the mafia always make sure that order exists in their diocese and that the disobedient are severely punished. Worn out and frightened, Russians are ready to accept even the following deliverance: "Better a horrible end than an endless horror."

Is it possible that they are right? Would a Russian Don Vito Corleone be better than Boris Yeltsin at solving the country's problems? Such illusions seem to me to be extremely dangerous, but the rising tide of appeals in newspapers and on television for the establishment of a "criminal democracy and a criminal market" is not accidental.

It would be reasonable to think that some mafioso group with close ties to the government is behind this propaganda and is laying the groundwork for the eventual seizure of power. Gangsters are manipulating the public opinion of both Russia and the West, neutralizing possible opposition from the democratic forces -- primarily from the United States -- and meanwhile planning a series of "decisive" actions. It is important to them that they not be exposed for what they are. But by the time power falls into the hands of mafia leaders, it will already be too late.

Once "order" and "criminal democracy" have been established, we can expect not the arrival of law and the market but instead the advent of a merciless dictatorship. Without a doubt, the path to this new order will be brutal and bloody. The fact is that the mafia is not a united group but rather consists of rival clans. In order for one leader to emerge as the single "all-Russian godfather," it will be necessary for him not only to destroy all his opponents but also all his associates who helped him in the first killings, all dissidents and doubters, as well as those whom he simply does not like.

Is it really possible that the history of Stalin's rise to power has taught us nothing? Like those criminals who today some say will bring Russia stability, Stalin also promised the people that there would be order, prosperity and freedom -- but first he needed to execute Leon Trotsky, Grigory Zinovyev and Nikolai Bukharin, eliminate the opposition and eradicate all of the "enemies of the people" along with the foreign spies that had allegedly infested the country. Today Russia is headed down this same path.

Democracy cannot be built upon double standards, either in Russia or in America. History has taught us that there is no such thing as "socialist" democracy, nor can there ever be "criminal" democracy. There is no such thing as order without law, and democracy can only exist in its pure form. The world community should not allow itself to be manipulated into thinking that Russia can be led to order by lawless means.

Sergei N. Khrushchev, son of the former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, is a visiting scholar at Brown University's Center for Foreign Policy Development. He contributed this comment to The Washington Post.