Mafiosi in ex-Soviet lands not the same as criminals

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

October 19, 1993|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Staff Writer

KIEV, Ukraine -- His car was racing along at 90 mph, and Vladimir Libov was laughing uproariously at the question called out to him from the back seat.

"Any mafia in Kiev?" he repeated, dissolving once more into hearty laughter. "Well, what is the mafia?"

There's plenty of mafia in the former Soviet Union, but most would not be embraced by any self-respecting godfather in the United States.

Here, to define the mafia requires first making the distinction between mafia and criminals. The mafia works with government involvement, the criminals work on their own.

The mafia usually finds itself engaged in buying and selling and even manufacturing; the criminals are engaged in robbing at gunpoint.

The idea of buying and then reselling at a profit -- once a crime of the highest order -- is still repugnant here for many.

Some even say it is destroying the country.

"No one works anymore," Anatoly Chepurnoi, a conservative member of the now-disbanded Parliament, fumed in a recent interview. "They just stand around selling cigarettes. And all the kiosks are filled with Western imports. Why do we need them?"

Mr. Chepurnoi, a man apparently devoid of irony, was chain-smoking Camels imported from the United States.

In much of the former Soviet Union, it's almost impossible to set up a business without a more or less corrupt arrangement with the government -- the laws have not been passed that would permit anything else. And that is how a new mafioso is minted.

Three years ago Mr. Libov, then in construction, decided to start a small business making musical instruments with two friends.

That tiny workshop has become a thriving company producing kobza, a lute-like Ukrainian instrument, and fine Spanish guitars.

Mr. Libov has spun off a tourist business and an automobile repair shop. He's about to produce wooden playground sets for a German firm and hopes to import used German cars for resale here.

He has created 80 jobs and plans more. In the United States, the Chamber of Commerce would give him a banquet. Here they whisper, "mafia."

"Everywhere we turned there were difficulties," Mr. Libov said. .. "No space. No loans. No help. But somehow we managed to settle the problems."

Standing in his office, wearing a natty and slightly baggy dark suit, Mr. Libov laughed uproariously once more when pressed for examples of how entrepreneurial ingenuity overcame bureaucratic hostility. He was reluctant to provide evidence that could be used against him.

"We had to create our own financing and trade," he began. "Of course you just can't go to a bank and apply for credit and get it. These things are solved through personal channels."

Pressed again, Mr. Libov offered a tiny detail. "The only space we could get for our workshop was totally unsuitable," he said. "It used to be a barbershop. The fire inspector came by again today. We both know that it's impossible to pass the fire inspection. So he leaves with a free guitar that he can sell for

$80."

You need money to start a business, and no honest person has any. "People who earned money in an honest way have nothing today," he said. "We only had our salaries, and inflation did away with all of that."

Mr. Libov is a kind man and an inexhaustible host for his city. When a visitor inquires about the dazzling Orthodox monastery sitting atop the hills of Kiev, he hops behind the wheel of his German-made Opel and roars off, visitor in tow. A director of one of the monastery museums offers Mr. Libov and his guest a personal, after-hours tour.

Later, the Opel speeds off to favored scenic points along the river, and up winding, cobblestone streets as Mr. Libov, 39, chats about his prospects.

"Now we are strong, and it's hard to stop us," he said.

"But not everyone can do it. It requires a certain kind of physiology to be a businessman here. You have to be three times as strong and work three times as hard as in any civilized country."

The next day, Mr. Chepurnoi was thumping his desk in anger as he railed about the businessmen of Ukraine.

"The commercial structures are not controlled," he said angrily. "They earn as much as they want."

What's a poor mafioso to do?

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