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From Pressing Crime Problems to Innovative Student Exchanges, Professor Serguei Cheloukhine Keeps His Eye on Former Soviet Republics

In the 20-plus years since the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, new problems have arisen in and spread from the former Soviet republics — most prominently, terrorism and transnational organized crime. John Jay Associate Professor Serguei Cheloukhine is one who has the pulse of these nagging crime problems, and he has been sharing his unique perspective in new presentations on the global stage and newly published works.

On October 17, Europol – a multinational investigative and enforcement arm of the European Union – held its first Conference on Eurasian Organised Crime in The Hague, the Netherlands, and Professor Cheloukhine was a featured speaker. As an advisor to EU member states and Europol, Professor Cheloukhine has urged the adoption of a dual reactive/proactive approach to combating such crime, along with more creative thinking in investigations. He noted that such criminals are often well educated, with PhD’s in economics, finance or information technology, complicating the challenge faced by law enforcement in the tracking of criminal assets.

A further challenge to law enforcement, he points out, is the often intricate linkage between organized crime groups and terrorists. “Sometimes they are the same groups involved in these activities,” Professor Cheloukhine observed. “They find a mutual drive to conduct their business. They earn the money, launder the money, and they meet each other in the shadows. That’s how they do their business.” His investigations and research in Chechnya and Dagestan, he said, have convinced him that illegal activities and organized crime do indeed finance terrorist activities.

Professor Cheloukhine also explores this complicated landscape in a new book, Counterterrorism in Areas of Political Unrest: The Case of Russia’s Northern Caucasus. Published by Springer and co-written with Ethan Burger, the book offers a taut examination of the special law enforcement challenges posed by political transition and upheaval in that region. The crime groups operating in the region are unique in their structure and operation, he asserts, as is the social and political environment in which they operate. Such factors combine to require a similarly unique strategy for counterterrorism operations.

“My concern was what methods and tactics – law enforcement and military and what have you – can fight terrorists,” he said. “In the Russian system, what they have adopted into law is that terrorists are to be taken down, not necessarily captured and brought to court. Legislation also requires all compensation for damages – moral, physical, economic and material damages – to be covered by family members of a particular terrorist. So whatever takes place, everything will be confiscated and used to cover damages. They are sending a message to all family members to give up or face the consequences.”

While it might seem convenient to dismiss the crime and terrorism problems of the Northern Caucasus as a local or regional issue, that is far from the case, and a risky way of thinking, said Professor Cheloukhine. The problem is already spilling over into the countries of the European Union, notably Italy, Germany, France, Switzerland and the Netherlands. “Once criminals and terrorists cross borders in the member states, they’re free to go anywhere,” Professor Cheloukhine noted. “Many burn their identification and passports, then create fake names and identities,” aided by a “no questions asked” policy of the EU regarding the issuance of new ID’s. “The European Commission is under huge pressure to deal with this problem.”

The problems spilling out of the Northern Caucasus have also affected the United States, most recently and significantly in the terrorist bombing at the 2013 Boston Marathon. In the aftermath of that attack, Professor Cheloukhine was contacted by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to provide valuable perspectives on the cultural and religious backgrounds of the alleged attackers, who are ethnic Chechens.

“I spent half of my life there. I know the traditional culture of those people,” said Professor Cheloukhine, who served in the Russian police before immigrating to Canada and, subsequently, the United States. He is also preparing to submit a grant proposal to the National Institute of Justice to support further inquiries building on his earlier research. His scholarly output already includes the report “Combating Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing in the Republic of Kazakhstan,” which was published in Russian and funded by the U.S. State Department.

“This is a tall order,” he said of the dual challenges of organized crime and terrorism, admitting that even he was surprised by the scale of the threat. “EU officials are just waking up to this, and are moving in the direction of common approaches between countries.” Since the conference in The Hague, Professor Cheloukhine has fielded requests to visit Germany, Switzerland and other EU countries to continue discussions on responses to pressing crime problems.

On the home front, Professor Cheloukhine waves the John Jay banner as coordinator of a unique exchange program in which students from the National Academy of Prosecutors in Ukraine attend John Jay to earn master’s degrees in criminal justice. The program was initiated by Dr. Alexander Rovt, a trustee of the John Jay College Foundation, with support from President Jeremy Travis. Following a visit to Ukraine by President Travis and Professor Cheloukhine to discuss details of the initiative, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed in the president’s office in May 2012.

The first two exchange students are completing their studies here, with a second cohort about to arrive.

“We have gotten the best response from Ukrainian authorities, because the students are excellent in terms of their achievements here,” Professor Cheloukhine noted. “We also put them into the Manhattan DA’s office for three- or four-month internships, so they gain really good experience. These are Ukraine’s future prosecutors, and under the Ukraine system, they must first go through law school, and then they have to study for five years to obtain special training and a degree in prosecution. So it’s a really huge achievement.”

Discussions are currently underway to expand the exchange program to include all former Soviet states.

“I’m helping to take John Jay international, and I’m really proud of that,” Professor Cheloukhine said.