Moscow shudders at rise in crime Freedom to make money meets freedom to steal it

August 22, 1993|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- A nation accustomed to the rigid controls of a police state has been caught unprepared for the dark side of unrestrained personal freedom. So have the police.

Crime in Moscow, everyone here will tell you, is completely out of hand.

Just last Tuesday, one gang sprayed another with machine-gun fire, killing three people in one burst.

Two weeks earlier, a restaurateur was shot to death as he left home for work. A banker was gunned down in St. Petersburg, prompting his colleagues to write to newspapers complaining about almost a dozen such killings since December.

"This doesn't look like a capital city," said Vyacheslav Yegorov, director of crime analysis for Moscow police. "It looks like a war zone."

As in so many other things, Moscow has some catching up to do before it reaches U.S. urban crime rates. The fact is that the Russian capital is far safer than typical U.S. cities. Despite a rapid rise in the number of crimes, the homicide rate, for example, remains relatively low.

While Russians are both terrified and horrified, U.S. lawmen look at Moscow with envy. Crime here, they say, is still in the very earliest stages.

Jim Moody, chief of organized crime for the FBI and a recent

visitor here, described Russia as being in a sort of Al Capone era, with emerging gangs shooting each other in turf battles.

"I am very envious of [the Russian police's] being able to address organized crime at this stage rather than later stages," said Mr. Moody, who was in Moscow to open an office for a permanent representative here to help coordinate U.S. and Russian efforts to fight organized crime.

In the first six months of this year, Moscow had 602 homicides. In Baltimore, 170 people were slain, giving Baltimore about one homicide for every 4,400 residents; Moscow had either one killing per every 14,900 people or one per every 23,200, depending on how you count the population.

Moscow officials are reluctant to calculate crime rates exactly because they aren't sure how many people live here. Officially, the population is about 9 million. But, one city statistician said last week, the real figure probably is closer to 14 million. Official counts were based on how many people had legal permission to live in Moscow, and many others moved here illegally.

Although Americans for years have had to make a psychological adjustment to ever-rising crime rates, Russians are astounded and frightened anew every day.

"Even though the average person is not at all affected by crime," said Richard Alibegov, a crime reporter for a Moscow radio station, "they are terrified by what they see and hear."

The dramatic social changes of the past few years also caught police unprepared.

"Crime is explained by the fact that perestroika began in 1985, resulting in the democratization and humanization of society," Mr. Yegorov said. "The police force is also to blame. It couldn't adjust."

Just as in Baltimore, crime here tends to prey on certain groups. In Baltimore, drug traffic produces a great deal of crime, and poor neighborhoods feel the brunt of it. In Moscow, the crime is concentrated on the small group of people who have money, both legally and illegally.

Though reports of gangland-style killings create a sense of general lawlessness, Mr. Yegorov said, random street crime is still relatively rare here. "The rich are very well-known, so they are targets," he said.

Until the past few years, he explained, no one had any money to be stolen. But as controls loosened, the growing opportunity to make money collided with the growing potential to demand it at gunpoint.

In a complaint familiar to Americans, Mr. Yegorov said courts here had started coddling criminals while placing ever more restrictions on police.

"Now they treat criminals very liberally," he said. "They even release them from jail before the trial, and when they are convicted they are given light sentences."

Now crime does nothing but go up, he said.

In 1977, 18,283 crimes were reported in Moscow. Last year, the number was up to 65,820. The big jump was recorded from 1988 to 1989, when the number of crimes reported rose from 27,408 to 42,403.

By then, rigid authority had lapsed. The government was no longer concerning itself with political crimes -- which once were seen as the major threat to the nation. While crimes such as murder, assault and theft had always existed, their numbers were low, and they were not seen as the same kind of threat to public order as people who thought for themselves.

Many of the pre-perestroika crimes involved an affront to the state that would be tolerated elsewhere, such as drunkenness or unemployment.

As severe state scrutiny broke down, it became easier and easier to find guns. Those who were so inclined felt free to take what they wanted, and they had the weapons to back them up.

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