Wave of freedom in Eastern Europe is followed by a wave of criminality

November 25, 1993|By David Rocks | David Rocks,Contributing Writer

PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- Eduard Krhutek shuffles through the pile of police reports on his desk and shakes his head in disgust.

"Before the revolution, we'd have maybe 40 or 50 reports a day," says the lieutenant colonel with the beleaguered Czech national police. "Now we've got more than 250."

Four years after the revolutions, wall-bashing and democracy-building that brought an end to four decades of communism in Eastern Europe, the region's major cities often seem to have become rough-and-tumble battlegrounds for outlaws.

In the Czech Republic, crime has nearly tripled since 1988, and some crimes are more than five times as common as they were four years ago. In Hungary, crime is up more than 140 percent, and in Poland, the crime rate has nearly doubled.

Car theft in the region has gotten so bad that many car rental agencies in Western Europe forbid customers from taking vehicles to former Communist countries. On one recent day, 41 cars were stolen in Prague.

"Of course crime is growing, like in any country that is changing from totalitarianism to democracy," Colonel Krhutek said with a sigh. "After the euphoria of the revolution, everybody thought that what's not forbidden is allowed."

Police get little respect

At the same time, he and other police say they get little respect from the people. As the former enforcers of Communist regimes, police in the region are subject to continuing mistrust -- even if their ranks have been largely purged of Communist collaborators.

After ridding themselves of the politically suspect, many police forces were left with a corps of relatively young and inexperienced officers. Attracting new recruits has been difficult because of low wages and of competition from new private security firms, which can offer higher salaries.

Furthermore, while the number of police officers has not grown appreciably in the last four years, the number of crimes has gone up -- and that means more crimes go unsolved, which only serves to reinforce the view of many citizens that the police are inept and not to be trusted.

"The police was one of the organs of the state apparatus, and controlled a very broad part of people's lives," said Josef Zapletal, a professor of criminology at Prague's police university. "The old image of the police endures, and citizens react in much the same way. They don't trust police and don't want to cooperate with them."

If the police were more feared in the old days, they were also more effective. That was in part because the Communist regimes were exceptionally efficient at stopping crime before it happened -- simply by keeping a close watch on all citizens, whether or not they were suspected of any crime. Now, people are freer to move about and do as they please, which makes police work more difficult.

The price of freedom

"An increase in crime is something we had to pay in exchange for freedom," said Ferenc Ark, head of the criminology department at Budapest's National Institute of Criminology and Criminalistics.

Before 1989, the occasional murder was almost always the result of a family dispute or a quarrel among acquaintances; random violence was rare. Although the murder rate has not gone up as rapidly as that of other crimes, murderers now more often victimize strangers and crimes for financial gain outnumber crimes of passion, said Katalin Gonczol, general secretary of the Hungarian Society of Criminology.

"Increasing numbers of people are getting into a position that they have nothing to lose if they get caught," Mr. Gonczol said. "What will they lose? Because they are already unemployed, they don't have any place to live. And if they're successful, they can win."

With the introduction of a market economy, the scope of criminal activity has increased dramatically, as well. Previously, most crimes in Eastern Europe were crimes against the state, usually stealing from state-owned enterprises. Because there was no particular victim, and because Communist ideology held that state property was common property, few people were concerned.

Now, crime more often targets individuals or private companies that are more likely to feel the loss, so there is more concern about it's toll.

And criminals today are getting better at what they do. White collar crime, tax fraud and organized crime -- none of which was widespread before 1989 -- are increasing rapidly. In Hungary, experts estimate that financial crimes have grown six-fold in the last four years.

Ill-equipped

Meanwhile, police are ill-equipped to deal with any of these crimes. Despite some help from the West, few East European detectives are trained in the special investigative skills needed to track economic offenses. Many police forces lack the computer data bases and networks needed to to keep track of violations.

"All of the former Communist countries were relatively secure, and criminals were relatively unsophisticated," said Krzysztof Krajewski, professor of criminology at the Jagiellonian University Law School in Krakow, Poland.

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