THE RISE of the mafia in the former Soviet Union is the subject of research by a small band of political scientists who see crime and corruption as a threat to emerging democracy in eastern Europe.
Valentin Yakushik, director of the social and political research centre at Kiev's Mohyla Academy, said that warnings from Soviet academics in the late 1980s that President Gorbachev's perestroika reforms were likely to lead to a criminalisation of society had been ignored, with woeful results.
"Mafia activities and widespread corruption in post-Soviet societies are the result of these unskilled reforms. Democracy was declared in theory, but hasn't worked in practice," he said.
The Ukrainian, Russian and other new mafias cannot be compared with the Italian Mafia or organised crime in the United States, he added.
Western mafias are mostly part of the criminal sub-culture, separate from and opposed to the state. In post-Soviet societies the dividing line between criminal elements and government bureaucracies is often blurred. The dominant feature was the emergence of a primitive free market, coupled with a corrupt social system.
Today's mafia groups were based on the former Communist party nomenklatura, a class of officials known in the old system as spekulanti, or speculators, and criminals and racketeers who existed in a less powerful form in the past, Professor Yakushik said.
"These are the main economic rulers of any post-Soviet country and can channel whatever political decisions they wish."
The ruling establishment - the so-called "party of power" - in most post-Soviet states all claimed to be opposed to organised crime and in support of open government. Programmes such as Ukraine's "clean hands" anti-corruption drive were common, but often little more than ways of attacking rival groups or legitimising the policy of the ruling oligarchy, he added.
Dennis Chernikov, a researcher at the centre, which is working on a range of good governance reform projects, said there had been a handful of research papers on organised crime, partially because many university leaders themselves were connected with corrupt practices.
"Few people have been interested in studying this phenomenon because for homo sovieticus corruption was a way of life. The Soviet Union was not a market economy, market relations were dependent on administrators - rule was by blat (influence) and the telephone."
Victor Kotusenko, a former philosophy student of the Mohyla Academy, posed the question: "Is the Mafia Good or Bad?" in a conference paper last year.
He argued that "from certain social and ethical perspectives, the mafia can be seen as good, and certainly has been seen as good. I do not share this view - but unless we recognise its possibility and seek to understand its origins and causes, efforts to counter the mafia will always be liable to fail."
Professor Yakushik agrees: "There should be unbiased researchers who can first elaborate theoretical models on how we can transform our societies into law-based ones without revolution and then plan for the practical aspects of good governance," he said.
Western governments - and donor agencies - cannot afford to ignore the phenomenon of the post-Soviet mafia, he said. The spread of eastern European organised crime, its money and activities, throughout the continent is already well established.
His academy, re-established in 1992 as one of Ukraine's special-status national universities, has taken a lead in stamping out corruption in academia: entrance exams, which many university staff elsewhere regard as a source of illicit income, are rigorously controlled to ensure fairness.