Tuesday, August 12, 2008

In Defense of Organized Crime

So many things happen to us in our travels that it is hard to record them all. The fist in face incident brings back some memories of a fascinating discussion we had two weeks ago.

When we got back from our caving month in China both Lara and I were ready for a few days on the beach. Of course, we are about 3000 km from the nearest ocean so we have to be flexible. We decided to go to Cholpon-Ata which is a holiday town on the north shore of lake Issy-Kol. Every summer it fills with tourists who swim in the (relatively) warm waters of the lake.

We got a lift to the lake from Abai, a restaurant owner in Bishkek. He is one of the Kyrgyz wealthy in that he has a business, a couple of apartments, and his own vehicle. Abai offered to drive us down to the lake if we paid for a tank of gas (actually a bad deal for us given how cheap buses and shared taxis are, but still not that expensive). He picked us up from our hotel in the morning and then we stopped by to pick up his friend who is a police officer.

Abai told us that after the Soviet Union collapsed his father ended up doing business in Russia. At the tail end of the 1990s his father was murdered. We didn't get details, but his was a common occurrence back then. Gangsters ruled the street and violence was everywhere.

Abai is strongly supportive of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He says that under Putin the violence has gone away and Russia is a much safer place. Apparently most of the organized crime has now become legitimate. To him the allegations of corruption in the Putin government are unimportant, and given the widespread support Putin enjoys in Russia it would seem many agree with him. When you live in a country where you are at constant risk you are willing to forgo a bit of democracy in exchange for safety.

More interestingly, Abai is not opposed to organized crime given the right circumstances. In a place like Kyrgyszstan, where the police are corrupt, it is organized crime that protects the rights of the common people. In some cases criminals become a parallel system of government providing stability and order on the streets. For example, if somebody owed you money you could go to the local gangsters and explain the situation. The gangsters would then go to the other party and hear their side and then act as judge and jury and resolve the situation. You'd be wise not to lie to the gangsters as they'd hate to be made fools of.

By contrast, Lara and I were once went to small claims court in Canada over a vehicle that had the mileage rolled back from 430,000 km to 180,000 km. The judge was totally incompetent and didn't believe that a vehicle with 250,000 extra kilometers had a reduced value. The paperwork was so complex that we were unable to appeal the judgement in the 30 days allowed. I suspect that if we'd had a working system of gangsters in Calgary we'd probably have gotten a much quicker and fairer solution.

I'm by no way advocating replacing our courts and justice system with a bunch of criminals. But I do find it interesting how our perspective changes what we see. In a place with no police the criminals can sometimes be the good guys.

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