The Guardian

The Guardian June 21, 2000


Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

What a beat up!

Did you see Foreign Correspondent last week? The one with the 
highly touted segment about anti-drug campaigners in Russia joining with 
the Mafia to oust the drug dealers from their town?

The introduction and the publicity made it sound both significant and 
bizarre, but in the event, the program itself turned out to be little more 
than a media beat-up.

In case you did not see it (and given the increasingly superficial items on 
Foreign Correspondent I wouldn't blame you for not bothering with it 
any more) I will describe it.

The segment was set in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, named after a 
Russian Tsarina. In Soviet times it was called Sverdlovsk after Lenin's 
comrade in arms and Revolutionary leader Yakov Sverdlov.

A local concerned citizen of Yekaterinburg has begun a crusade against 
drugs in the town. With the help of some like-minded mates he has 
established a group of vigilantes and wages his own "war on drugs" against 
dealers.

At the same time he runs a rough-and-ready detox program for heroin 
addicts.

Addicts are handcuffed to beds for the barbarity of cold turkey withdrawal 
followed by a year of strict, institutionalised regimen.

There is little new in this, of course. The combination of frustration, 
fear and anger that fuels popular support for the "war on drugs" approach 
is understandable and well documented.

So too is the fact that the "war on drugs" approach merely deepens 
the links between drugs and crime, criminalises wide sections of the 
population and provides fertile ground for corruption and the growth of 
organised crime.

Less colourful but really more newsworthy are the approaches of more 
enlightened administrations which treat the problem as a socio-medical one.

What apparently made the Yekaterinburg "war on drugs" newsworthy for the 
ABC was the fact that this anti-drug campaigner was accepting help from the 
local Russian Mafia.

The ABC's foreign correspondent on the spot professed to find this 
absolutely flabbergasting, but then proceeded to reveal some of the very 
mundane reasons why the city's gangsters would be interested in helping: 
the local crime boss was running for parliament (if elected he would be 
immune from future prosecution).

The reporter made no mention of the fact that the local Russian Mafia would 
also be keen to do over a rival criminal force with public help.

The spectacle of a Mafia gang that makes its money from protection rackets, 
gambling, prostitution and graft apparently being high minded about drug 
dealing is not new either: some US Mafia bosses were initially very hostile 
to the drug trade.

Labour racketeers who thought nothing of rubbing out a union organiser 
professed to be outraged at the prospect of selling drugs to 
schoolchildren.

In the Foreign Correspondent segment we were treated to shots of 
Russian Mafia thugs standing "guard" outside a school to "protect" it 
against drug dealers.

The headmistress, interviewed about this, said she was happy to accept the 
gangsters' charity, because the school had no money.

As for the dubious morality of it, well, she said she took no interest "in 
politics". The school had no money but she took no interest in politics! 
(Al Capone, incidentally, got a lot of his popular support in Chicago from 
his acts of charity. The Japanese Yakuza do the same.)

The rest of the people of Yekaterinburg apparently did take an interest in 
politics however, and the Mafia boss did not get elected.

Foreign Correspondent did not deem it news worthy enough to 
interview any of the voters or local politicians as to why he got defeated.

Instead the program did its best to promote the "fearless anti-drugs 
campaigner", showing his balaclavad vigilantes beating up some obviously 
low-level drug dealers.

The chief of police was interviewed briefly, expressing his contempt for 
the efforts of the self-proclaimed vigilantes and pointing out that they 
merely move the problem around, they don't "fix" it at all.

Far from being the revelatory sensation promised in the ads and at the 
beginning of the program, the segment on Yekaterinburg was really an 
insignificant little story. If gangsters had not been involved, the ABC 
would almost certainly not have bothered with the story.

As usual, the segment was superficial. Although much was made of the fact 
that Yekaterinburg "lies on the main drug route from Afghanistan", the 
magnitude of the city's drug problem was never spelled out.

Nor was the social context explored: what is the level of unemployment 
today, especially among youth?

What job creation programs and other youth programs  if any  does the 
local administration have in train? What's the political character of the 
local administration, anyway?

(The city may have changed its name from Sverdlovsk, but statues of Lenin 
clearly abound, there are massive Soviet memorials still maintained, and 
one of the city districts is still named after Stalin's Commissar for 
Industry, Orjonikidze.)

And of course the big question  why drugs did not become a significant 
problem in Russia until the overthrow of socialism  was never asked.

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