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Is Russia now a criminocracy?

Vladimir Putin’s Russia has previously been characterised as a “hybrid regime” that combines both autocratic and democratic elements. Ireneusz Pawel Karolewski and Viktoria Kaina argue that given the actions of Putin’s regime, it might better be classified as a “criminocracy”.

The world is facing the rise of a new type of authoritarian regime. This regime is different from the autocracies that we know from history. We call this kind of modern state a “criminocracy”. Such regimes largely operate like organised crime cartels, but with the attributes of statehood.


In 2014, Eduardo Salcedo-Albaràn drew attention to the particular threat posed by modern states that are shaped by crime.

In such states, formal and legal democracy is installed, there are elections and parliaments, and there are also laws and courts. However, behind this façade of government, political power is captured by members of criminal networks.

This entirely changes the function of law and political institutions beyond what exists in authoritarian regimes. In criminocracies, institutions and laws are aimed at protecting the interests of criminals, rather than citizens.

Ideology, if present at all, serves the same aim. The toolbox used by criminals in power is varied. It includes not only legislation and the administration of laws but also manipulation, co-optation, repression, the murder of opponents and arbitrary violence against citizens.

Putin’s regime

One of the foremost examples of this type of regime is Vladimir Putin’s Russia. In regime classification research, Russia has for two decades been incorrectly diagnosed as a hybrid regime.

Such grey-zone regimes are known for combining autocratic and democratic elements. Others have classified Putin’s Russia as a developmental autocracy. In contrast, we argue that Russia has been a criminocracy since 2000.

In September 1999, a series of bombings hit apartment buildings across Russia, killing more than 300 people. Then-Prime Minister Putin blamed Chechen militants for the bombings, though they denied responsibility.

The question of who was to blame for the attacks became a subject of contention, with the journalist David Satter, among others, alleging that Russia’s intelligence services had carried out the bombings to create a pretext for waging war on Chechnya. What is beyond question, however, is that the event propelled Putin to the Russian presidency and solidified his grip on power.

Since then, Putin’s regime has extracted financial resources from government institutions, firms and foreign countries. Loyalty to the regime is either bought with gas money or extorted with violence, terror and repression.

Corruption is the fuel of criminocracies, rather than a pathological development. The Kremlin and its criminal networks live off corruption and bribery, both domestically and internationally. This has translated directly into immense wealth for key members of the regime and their families.

Since 2014, Russia has waged a criminal war against Ukraine, targeting civilians and committing war crimes, just as it did in Chechnya and Syria. The bombings of Grozny and Aleppo belong to the most heinous war crimes of the last hundred years. The key motivation has been profit.

Wagner mercenaries, Kremlin generals and even ordinary soldiers have been involved in racketeering and looting. The Wagner group was able to develop successful financial operations in Africa with the transfer of diamonds and gold mining. Even the conflict between Wagner and the Kremlin generals had a clear financial dimension, as the latter wanted a bigger piece of the loot.

Criminocracies in international relations

In international relations, criminocracies are very different actors from other types of state. Here, the typical tools of diplomacy, peace negotiations and reputational arguments do not work. In 2012, the former pro-Russian President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych was asked by the EU to release his political rival Yulia Tymoshenko from prison.

He responded that he would do so if the EU paid the money which, he argued, she owed the government. This offers a useful illustration of the type of psychology that criminocracies operate on. However, it is not just criminal networks that make up a criminocracy. Criminocracies also involve society.

As Alexander Motyl argues, Russia is inwardly and outwardly aggressive and violent. The Kremlin attempts to involve the population in its repressions and humiliates it in the process. This humiliation drives the population to support the Kremlin’s subjugation of other nations and countries.

This is a psychological mechanism that is common to criminal gangs. For Russia as a state, the consequence is that it ignores international treaties, systematically spreads misinformation and breaks its promises. It also co-opts local criminals, as occurred in post-2007 Chechnya or pre-2014 Ukraine.

In short, Putin’s regime operates much like a gang of criminals. And there is only one type of international reputation that Russia is interested in: fear.

The challenge for political science

While Putin’s actions have major implications for Europe and the wider world, they also raise questions for political science. Chief among these is whether political science is properly prepared to understand and explain the functioning of a criminocracy.

This may involve rethinking classical concepts such as law and statehood. After all, it is difficult to speak of concepts like “legality” when “illegality” becomes the norm. Similarly, if criminal networks rule a territory, it is questionable whether we should conceive of this territory as a modern state at all.

There are also uncertainties when it comes to explaining the function of a criminocracy given the actions of such regimes can be unpredictable. There is the question of succession and whether a criminocracy can endure when the criminals in power are replaced by another generation.

Externally, the concept of hard, soft and sharp power in international relations may need to be reassessed to capture the actions of criminocracies.

There are questions about how democratically elected politicians from other states can meaningfully interact with criminals on the diplomatic floor. We might also ask whether political professionals can count on agreements made with a criminal network.

These are only some of the pressing questions posed by the rise of criminocracies. These regimes are clearly a threat to their citizens, to democracies abroad, to international law and to global security. But they should also be approached as a theoretical, methodological and empirical challenge for our profession.

Author :
Ireneusz Pawel Karolewski is a Professor of Political Theory and Democracy Research at Leipzig University.

Viktoria Kaina is Chair of Government “Political Science I: State and Government” at the University of Hagen.


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