Things changed dramatically in the 1990s. The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union was accompanied by a drastic weakening of the state, unable and unfit to cope with the dramatic shift from a planned to a market economy. Those people engaged in Soviet and East European studies had no choice but to write about the emergent mafias of the late 1980s and 90s because they comprised one of three constituent parts of a new polity, along with the new class of oligarchs and what remained of state institutions. Ignoring the Russian mafia would have been akin to writing a history of the United States in the 1970s without mentioning the CIA, big business, the FBI or the Supreme Court.
As coherent policies started to melt in Russia, another equally important one was already coming into being elsewhere. The Big Bang of 1986, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher’s most important joint initiative, lifted restrictions on corporate capital movement. This persuaded the political elites of countries such as India, Brazil, China, Indonesia and South Africa to adjust and accept more open markets. To varying degrees, the commercial law systems of these countries found accommodating these changes a difficult challenge.
The conjuncture of these two historical moments with a specifically criminal development injected immense vigour into the business of organized crime. This was supercharged by Reagan’s affirmation of the disastrous War on Drugs at a time of rapid growth in cocaine consumption in certain markets during the 1980s, and later by an upsurge in heroin production and distribution in the first half of the 1990s as Afghanistan’s security situation deteriorated.
Federico Varese was among a number of young students in the 1990s whose doctoral research coincided with these events. He went to Perm, located halfway between Moscow and Novosibirsk, where he recorded in minute detail the emergence of the local mafia organization, eventually leading to his seminal work, The Russian Mafia (2001). Others were undertaking similar work in various countries including South Africa, China, Brazil and India. Most framed their research with some reference to The Sicilian Mafia: The business of private protection (1993) by the Italian social scientist Diego Gambetta. More than anyone else’s, Gambetta’s work has changed our fundamental understanding of mafias and organized crime groups. Mafias usually emerge, he argues, at times of social or economic upheaval when the state finds itself unable or unwilling to regulate markets. In order to ensure the smooth running of commercial activities, mafias, or “privatized law enforcement agencies” as another researcher named them, assume the role of arbiter….
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