Masha Gessen writes: The term “mafia state” was pioneered by Bálint Magyar, a sociologist in Hungary, Russia’s closest ally in Europe. Magyar and his colleagues have elaborated on the concept in the last decade, as Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán has amassed power, eliminated political and economic rivals, and turned the institutions of his state into instruments of personal power. So important is this concept to Hungarian intellectuals’ understanding of what has happened to their society that an edited collection of twenty sociological articles on the topic sold 15,000 copies there — an almost unheard-of figure for an academic volume anywhere, especially in a country of 9.8 million people. The concept is little-known outside of Hungary, though Magyar believes it describes the regimes in three other post-Communist states: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Russia. (Magyar’s own book, Post-Communist Mafia State: The Case of Hungary, has just been translated into English.)
Here is what a mafia state is not, according to Magyar, whom I interviewed in Budapest last year. It is not a kleptocracy or “crony capitalism,” because both of these terms suggest voluntary association among participants and appear to imbue all of them with agency. But in Russia, for example, the men who used to be known as the oligarchs have long since forfeited all political power and much personal autonomy in exchange for a share of the spoils. It is not “neoliberal” or “illiberal” because it is neither a development of liberalism nor a deviation from it — it has little to do with liberalism at all. Sure, it has so-called elections as well as courts and laws, but these have become entirely instrumentalized: they serve to help regulate relationships within the clan and to apportion favors, mostly because these were the tools most immediately available when the mafia came to power. It is not an oligarchy, because political power has been monopolized, as has corruption. It is not a dictatorship, because, unlike a dictatorship, the mafia state has some legitimacy — precisely the sham democratic rituals that lead some to call them “hybrid regimes.”
Much of the analysis of post-Soviet regimes focuses on what they lack: fair and open elections, for example, or free media. That, says Magyar, is like trying to describe an elephant by what it is not: “The elephant has no wings — OK. It cannot swim in water — OK. But that doesn’t tell us what an elephant is! ”To understand what a mafia state is, we need to imagine a state run by, and resembling, organized crime. At its center is a family, and at the center of the family is a patriarch. “He doesn’t govern,” says Magyar. “He disposes — of positions, wealth, statuses, persons.” In Putin’s Russia, the “family” includes, among others, long-time secret-police colleagues Igor Sechin and Sergei Ivanov, but also ostensible liberals from Putin’s St. Petersburg days, like prime minister Dmitry Medvedev and former finance minister Aleksei Kudrin. A somewhat more recent addition to the family is defense minister Sergei Shoigu, who had served as emergencies minister under Yeltsin. The patriarch and his family have only two goals: accumulating wealth and concentrating power. Violence and ideology — the pillars of a totalitarian state — become, in the hands of a mafia state, mere instruments. The distinction is particularly meaningful because all the states the model describes are post-Communist. Where the state used to own the entire economy, now it seeks simply to control the most lucrative businesses and skim off the top of the rest—and eliminate those who refuse to pay.
Mafia states murder people, just like the Mafia does—but they murder only the people who are immune to coercion and blackmail: journalists, for example, or defiantly independent actors like the opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, shot dead a year ago in Moscow. “But these murders, and even imprisonments, are on a much smaller scale than in traditional dictatorship because they are not necessary,” says Magyar. Most of the time, coercion will do the job — and mafia states, unlike some others, are pragmatic and do not murder for the sake of it. [Continue reading…]