|Location: Former Soviet Union|
|Author: Michael Mesquita|
|Affiliation: West Sands Advisory Limited|
Original text by Michael Mesquita
Kompromat is a Russian compound noun formed by shortening and blending the words ‘komprometiruyushy’ and ‘material’, or compromising material. While there is no direct English equivalent, kompromat refers to, ‘discrediting information that can be collected, stored, traded, or used strategically across all domains: political, electoral, legal, professional, judicial, media, or business’ (Ledeneva 2006: 58).
Kompromat belongs to the general family of practices known as ‘character assassination’ (see entry in this volume). As with black public relations (PR) campaigns (known as chornyi piar in Russia – see entry on chernukha in this volume), the purpose of kompromat is to discredit opponents. However, unlike black PR, kompromat can also be used to blackmail competitors and does not necessarily need to be published in the public domain to be effective. Gathering, disseminating and manipulating kompromat is still practiced in countries of the former Soviet Union and remains an important device to eliminate competitors or protect the interests of government officials, state agencies or entrepreneurs.
The practice of gathering kompromat originated during the early years of the Soviet Union when security services collected condemning material on Communist Party members that could be traded or used to either punish or blackmail rivals. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, many government officials associated with the state or internal security services were left unemployed. Following the collapse of the USSR, political and commercial transformations within the former Soviet Union allowed many of these individuals to adapt their former tradecraft (i.e. surveillance and intelligence gathering) in a commercial context. Former secret services employees, for example, established security firms, which provided these services to the private sector. Nascent private security companies also maintained close connections with colleagues still working in state security agencies, which provided opportunities to acquire (for a price) previously undisclosed kompromat on private businesspersons and government officials; this led to the ‘semi-privatisation’ of kompromat.
Despite the de facto privatisation of kompromat, government agencies in many former Soviet countries still gather kompromat, and in the case of Russia the secret branches of law enforcement, such as the FSB or Interior Ministry, monopolise these means at the expense of the oligarchs. Under President Putin, the capacity of non-state actors to gather and use kompromat is perceived as a threat that undermines the regime’s dominance over the means of information gathering. Nevertheless, the Russian state does not have a complete monopoly – government officials continue to gather or fabricate kompromat for personal political interests. For instance, Fyodor Andreyev, Chief Executive of Russian diamond mining company Alrosa, stepped down in September 2014 for health reasons. Reportedly, Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Trutnev – in charge of supervising Alrosa – had played a role in Andreyev’s resignation. Apparently in response, kompromat questioning Trutnev’s record was printed on wek.ru, a site commonly used to publish compromising material on political figures and oligarchs.
While the precise forms and use of kompromat by post-Soviet regimes may vary, the overall motivation remains the same – to discredit political opponents and ensure loyalty to the ruling regimes. For instance, ‘frozen files’ are held by central and regional tax and law enforcement agencies to be used against government officials and private businesspersons if and when necessary. These files can be overlooked so long as loyalty is maintained, but revived and a criminal case opened if the individual pursues competing political or commercial interests. For example, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma actively encouraged corruption, which could then be used to gather kompromat as a means of control (Darden 2001); a tactic that continues to be employed by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko (Hale 2014). The Kremlin engages in similar tactics against leading oligarchs and potential political rivals. For instance, Mikhail Gutseriev, owner of Russian oil company Russneft, came under attack in 2007 when members of the elite sought to take control of his oil assets. The charges, which were related to abuse of office and inflicting damage to the state, dated back to 2002; however, the documentation was held ‘on file’ by the security services to be used at a time when the ruling elite felt they needed to exert pressure.
Kompromat may also be used within the regime itself, either to guarantee the continued loyalty of potential rivals, or as a result of political infighting. For example, Ukrainian MP and 1999 presidential hopeful, Yevhen Marchuk, used President Kuchma’s bodyguard, Mykola Melnychenko, to gather kompromat on the President, which was used against him in the 1999 presidential election (Kuzio 2014). A more recent example is the case of Rakhat Aliev, the former son-in-law of Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev. As head of Kazakhstan’s secret service (KNB), in 2005 Aliev allegedly wiretapped the offices of government officials and the president to gather kompromat on both his enemies and his allies.
Kompromat can either be genuine, fabricated, exaggerated, or some combination of the three. The dubious legality of many business practices in the 1990s means that kompromat could be found on almost any individual who was active in business or politics during those years. The combination of underdeveloped political institutions and lack of an adequate legal framework created an environment where corruption and bribery could facilitate dubious business transactions, and were arguably unavoidable for a business to remain competitive in an economy where such practices were the norm. For instance, the chaotic privatisation process that took place in the early 1990s was often facilitated through questionable and sometimes illegal business practices. Unofficial elements, such as ties to illicit networks or organised crime, were a common feature during the privatisation of state resources, especially in certain sectors of the economy such as extractives. Criminal influence during the 1990s meant that many businesses either employed criminal groups as a krysha (‘roof’), or utilised criminal tactics for political or commercial gain.
Importantly, the veracity of kompromat is not necessarily important; rather its utility is in how effective it can be as leverage against political or commercial opponents (Gambetta 2009). Unlike in many Western states where media outlets may act as watchdogs for political and commercial malfeasance, the publication of kompromat is less concerned with exposing corrupt or illicit activity and more with finding a pliant agency or journalist that will publish (for a price) the allegations. Once the allegations are published in one source, other news agencies may pick up the story. In some cases, the allegations may lead to formal investigations, the result of which varies from criminal persecution, resignation from public office or commercial entity, to reputational risks that could affect domestic and international standing.
Finally, while there is ample evidence of kompromat being published in the public domain, the mechanism’s real value rests in those that are unpublished. In some cases, the threat of publication is just as valuable (and sometimes more) than publishing the material. This may similarly be used against business opponents to pressure them into a range of things such as selling valuable assets at below market value, withdrawing bids from government tenders, or discrediting business rivals.
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