The Corrupt Society

Konstantin Simis, USSR–The Corrupt Society.


But even though the KGB has full knowledge of the fact that the ruling elite is infected with corruption, the members of that elite remain inviolate. The fact is that, since its inception, the Soviet regime has been tolerant of the ruling elite’s improbity.

The exposure of the ruling clique of Georgia is a case in point. The dubious dealings of the Georgian elite (headed by one Vasilii Mzhavanadze, First Secretary of the republic’s Central Committee and a Candidate Member of the Politbiuro) were exposed as a result of the efforts of its Minister for Internal Affairs, Eduard Shevardnadze. He was at least in part motivated by ambition, but he apparently did feel genuine hatred for corruption and was truly pained by the decadence he witnessed. “Once, the Georgians were known throughout the world as a nation of warriors and poets; now they are known as swindlers,” he commented bitterly at a closed meeting. (This information comes from notes taken by one of the participants in that meeting.)

For several years agents of Shevardnadze’s Ministry for Internal Affairs shadowed all the leading functionaries in the party and state apparatus of Georgia, as well as their families, gathering much compromising evidence. This was not a particularly difficult task, since a reckless orgy of corruption was raging almost openly in Georgia.

There was a trade in the highest posts in the party and state apparatus, which had become so blatant that the underground millionaire Babunashvili was able to order for himself the post of Minister of Light Industry. Babunashvili headed a highly ramified illegal company that produced and marketed fabrics, but his ambition was not satisfied either by his multimillion-ruble income or by his business activities, and he decided that he wanted to cap his career by combining in a single person (himself) both sides of Soviet organized crime: the corrupter (underground business) and the corrupted (government).

The newspaper The Dawn of the East reported on February 28, 1973, that the plenum of the Communist Party of Georgia had remarked on this state of affairs. The article noted that “the not-unknown schemer Babunashvili was able to ‘order’ a ministerial chair,” and it went on to say that this was not an isolated incident. But the newspaper made no mention whatsoever of who received the bribes resulting in ministerial appointments. These bribes went to the person with a determining voice in deciding on ministerial appointments, the First Secretary of the Communist Party Central Committee and Candidate Member of the Politbiuro, and to the one with whom those decisions had to be cleared, the Chairman of the Council of Ministers.

At that time I knew a number of young people in Tbilisi who did not occupy very lofty posts-they were junior officers in the Council of Ministers and in the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet-but whose jobs allowed them access to top secret information about the behind-the-scenes life of the ruling apparat. It was they who told me of the trade in ministerial and deputy ministerial posts in Georgia, and assured me that the situation was just the same in Azerbaijan.

At the time there were more people ready and able to pay several hundred thousand rubles for a ministerial post than there were vacancies, so when a post did open up, a competition was begun. The first move was nomination by an official sufficiently high up to be entitled to make such a nomination, such as a Secretary in the republic’s party Central Committee, personnel chief to the Central Committee or the Chairman of the Council of Ministers or one of his deputies. A decisive factor in these nominations was often a clan linkage between the candidate and his patron; in Central Asian and Transcaucasian republics, family ties are one of the most important factors determining the composition of the ruling apparat.

Even at this early stage the size of the bribe to be paid for the nomination would have been discussed, but the real battle began only when it became clear just who the possible candidates were. Then, as my informants told me, amused, something very like an auction would sometimes take place behind the scenes, although the victor was not always the highest bidder. That is because the competition was not merely among the aspirants for the vacant post; it was also a competition among the recipients of their bribes, so the most influential patron had the best chance of winning.

All my information points to a going rate in those years for ministerial posts ranging from 100,000 rubles for the not very prestigious (or lucrative) post of Minister for Social Security up to 250,000 to 300,000 rubles for such bottomless feeding troughs as the Ministry of Trade or the Ministry of Light Industry. Not cheap, of course, but once installed in his post, the minister would be able to derive considerable income from it by peddling, in his turn, jobs as sector and territory chiefs (which, in a ministry like that of Light Industry, could fetch 100,000 to 125,000 rubles).

The top functionaries in the apparatus of the party Central Committee and the Council of Ministers divided the republic up into zones of influence. This division would more often than not be on the basis of tribal origin, for even today the old tribal fragmentation of Georgia plays an important role in influencing the life of the republic. A Mingrelian, an Imeretian, a Svanetian, or an Adzhar considers himself a Mingrelian, an Imeretian, a Svanetian, or an Adzhar first and a Georgian second; when he enters the ruling elite, he naturally becomes the protector of his fellow tribesmen and his region-which becomes his fiefdom. He places his relatives and devoted friends in key positions, and, of course, receives regular tribute payments through his prot»g»s.

Following the purge of the ruling apparat, this phenomenon was shamefacedly mentioned at a plenum of the Georgian Central Committee: “Several leading officials divide the republic into spheres of influence; they take under their patronage individual districts, towns and Party organizations; each has his own ‘favorites’ ” (Dawn of the East, February 28, 1973).

A special mark was left on corruption among the Georgian elite by the wives of the first and second secretaries of the party Central Committee, Mzhavanadze and Vasilii Churkin. They were both named Tamara and were known in Georgia as “the Tsarinas Tamara.” (A Tsarina Tamara ruled Georgia in the twelfth century, and her memory has survived in popular folklore.)

The two Tamaras played a tangible role in the administration of the republic-and of course in the corruption too. It was well known that with their assistance one could be nominated to a lucrative or prestigious post. It was equally well known that the influential ladies were loath to accept Soviet rubles in payment for their services; they preferred either foreign hard currency or merchandise such as precious stones (but only very large ones), paintings by important artists, or antiques.

Underground businessmen enjoyed the particular good graces of the two Central Committee wives; it was through these millionaires that the Tamaras’ collections of precious stones and works of art grew. Each Tamara had her own clients, among whom was to be the underground multimillionaire N. A. Laziashvili, a client of Tamara Mzhavanadze.

After the exposures and the purge Laziashvili was put on trial, and his case was written up in the republic and even the national press. They wrote about the scale of his criminal activities and about the millions he had made from them; they did not write about his having been a welcome visitor at the home of the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the republic’s Communist party or about his having maintained ongoing business connections with the Secretary’s wife.

The two Tamaras were the talk of the whole republic, yet when Mzhavanadze and his clique were exposed, the plenum of the party Central Committee mentioned them only in the following delicate way: “Family members began to act as surrogates for their high-ranking husbands, and problems of state came to be resolved within a narrow circle of family members and friends” (Dawn of the East, February 28, 1973).

Shevardnadze made careful and unhurried preparations for his exposure of the corrupt ruling elite. An official from the Ministry of Internal Affairs who was a participant in the operation told me that even within the ministry apparat no one was informed about the minister’s intentions. Shevardnadze had to conceal those intentions from everyone, but especially from the republic’s KGB, which was led by a general who was utterly loyal to Mzhavanadze. When Shevardnadze issued instructions that surveillance was to include members of the ruling elite, he explained this as necessary in order to expose criminals who had wormed their way into the trust of honest Communists in responsible positions.

Finally Shevardnadze considered that the time was ripe. He had received intelligence reports from Moscow stating the flight number, date, and arrival time in Tbilisi of a big-time speculator on the Moscow black market in foreign currency, who, he had also been informed, usually carried precious stones for Tamara Mzhavanadze. Shevardnadze asked his colleagues in the Moscow Ministry for Internal Affairs to let the speculator board the plane in Moscow without touching her, and promised them that she would be taken when she disembarked in Tbilisi airport. My informant from the Georgian ministry who had participated in this affair told me that the operation had been carefully worked out in every detail: the speculator was to be stopped as she descended the stairs from the airplane in Tbilisi by a special group of agents responsible directly to the minister and taken for searching and questioning to the ministry. When the precious stones were discovered she would be given the chance of providing detailed information about whom the stones were destined for in exchange for the promise of a light sentence at her trial. (Trade in precious stones is a very serious crime, punishable by long prison terms or even by death.)

But that plan was never carried out. When the plane had landed and taxied to a halt near the terminal building a group of men in civilian clothes were waiting, all looking very much alike (as plainclothes policemen do the world over). They had identified the woman from photographs and were about to act when a huge black limousine drove up to the foot of the stairs, a limousine well known to every operative agent in Tbilisi. Tamara Mzhavanadze stepped out of it, embraced her Moscow guest as she came down the stairs, and ushered her into the car.

All the agents could do was to stare at the departing limousine of the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Georgia. There was no sense in following it to learn the Moscow speculator’s destination; it was clear enough that she was being driven directly to the private residence of the First Secretary, which the operatives-or anyone else for that matter-could not enter uninvited.

It was then decided that the gem dealer would be arrested after her departure from the Secretary’s house, even though she would no longer have the compromising merchandise in her possession. There was a hope that she might be intimidated into providing the needed evidence. Even this plan failed. The guest was driven by Tamara Mzhavanadze right back to the staircase leading to the Moscow flight and was seen off with another warm embrace. Tamara stood on the tarmac until the airplane had taxied to the runway and taken off, all the while casting contemptuous glances at the group of agents.

The fact that Tamara Mzhavanadze went to the airport herself to meet the speculator with her precious stones (a thing she had never done before) proved that there had been a leak close to Shevardnadze and that the Mzhavanadze family had already been informed of the action being planned against it. Delays were dangerous, so Shevardnadze decided to go to Moscow immediately and submit his dossier of compromising evidence to Brezhnev.

It was toward the end of the summer of 1972. The First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Georgia was, as was his wont, passing the summer in his country residences-in the mountains on Lake Ritsa and in Gagra on the Black Sea coast.

On August 10, the republic’s newspaper reported that the First Secretary had received the Secretary of the Central Committee of the Israeli Communist Party and his wife, who were vacationing in Georgia and whom he “warmly and fraternally welcomed.” After he had fraternally welcomed the Israeli party Secretary and his wife, Mzhavanadze, according to a newspaper report of September 20, received a delegation from the German Democratic Republic. On the thirtieth a sudden extraordinary plenary session of the Georgian Central Committee was convened, which “complied with Mzhavanadze’s request that he be permitted to retire on pension, for reasons of age” and elected Shevardnadze as First Secretary of the Central Committee on instructions from Moscow.

Virtually the entire ruling apparat of Georgia (both party and state) was removed for reasons of health, pensioned off, or, indeed, dismissed without any reason being given. Thirteen members of the government of the republic were removed; the Chairman of the Council of Ministers, the Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, all the top people in the apparat of the party Central Committee, the President of the Supreme Court and the Public Prosecutor of Georgia. The decrees removing all these officials from their posts were published in the republic’s Russian-language newspaper, Dawn of the East, during 1972 and 1973.

But that was the limit of the purge. Not a single one of the ousted bribe takers faced a trial, and nearly all of them retained their party membership and, consequently, the possibility of again occupying leading posts in industry or in the ruling apparat. Mzhavanadze himself lost his candidate membership of the Politbiuro (on December 1972 at a plenum of the Central Committee of the CPSU), although he remained a member of the Communist party, and was granted a special pension of the kind usually provided for members and candidate members of the Politbiuro who have fallen out of favor, a pension amounting to about five times the maximum pension available to ordinary citizens.

Only Churkin, the Second Secretary of the Georgian Party Central Committee, was expelled from the party. Despite that he was given a post of the nomenklatura, the schedule of positions that can be held only by party members, subject to ratification by the party Obkom or the Central Committee. He was named to the post of Deputy Chairman of the Consumers’ Union of the Kalininskaia region in the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic (RSFSR).

The principal intermediaries in the transfer of the bribes, the two Tamaras, were also let off scot-free. The ones who landed up in court were the givers of the bribes, those who had purchased posts and academic credentials. Similar trials were held in Georgia between 1974 and 1977.

In the 1970s a bitter struggle developed between two clans within the ruling elite of Uzbekistan. On one side was the clan of one Sharaf Rashidov, the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the republic’s Communist party and a Candidate Member of the Politbiuro. Opposing it was the clan within which Mankul Kurbanov and Yaggar Nasreddinova (respectively Chairman of the Council of Ministers of Uzbekistan and Chairwoman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet) had joined forces.

The main tactic employed by both sides in this struggle was sending revelatory denunciations to Moscow. Each clan had its own protectors (who acted by no means selflessly) within the apparat of the Moscow Central Committee, through whom it tried to compromise its opponents in the eyes of Brezhnev and other secretaries of the Central Committee of the CPSU. Denunciations fell fast and furious, each clan accusing the other of bribery, disruption of work, and falsifying triumphant reports about the fulfillment of the plans for the cotton harvest. (Cotton is Uzbekistan’s principal crop and is of national importance). It must be said that these denunciations were quite true: there was wholesale corruption in the ruling circles of the republic.

From court cases later heard in Tashkent at local assizes of the USSR Supreme Court (in which Moscow defense attorneys participated) and from informants privy to information about the party and state rulers of Uzbekistan, I know that the leaders of that republic were paid regular tribute by chairmen of collective farms and managers of state farms, tribute in cash and in sheep, whole herds of which would be driven for them from mountain pastures into the capital. The owners of underground private enterprises made monthly protection payments in the form of money, gemstones, and, very often, in accordance with Asian tastes and traditions, valuable handmade rugs.

Each major official had his own sphere of influence and his own clientele by whom he was paid regular tribute in return for protection. For example, all the little shops and stalls in the Alai bazaar in the old part of Tashkent paid their tribute to Kurbanov, Chairman of the Council of Ministers.

But there was one underground business sector that made its payments to everyone: to the secretaries of the republic Central Committee, to the government leaders, to the Minister for Internal Affairs, to the head of the Department to Combat the Misappropriation of Socialist Property, and to many others besides. That sector was concerned with the cultivation and preparation of illegal drugs, the most dangerous-and the most profitable-business of all.

Source: Konstantin Simis, USSR: The Corrupt Society (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982), pp. 52-60.

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