Crime fills vacuum of post-Soviet authority, and few Russians speak out

May 04, 1994|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- As the old lines of authority shrivel and weaken, aggressive new forces are unhesitatingly taking over: Criminals are growing more powerful by the day.

"Crime is strengthening," said Vyacheslav Lokosov, an analyst at the Institute of Strategic Political Research. "It's becoming the fifth branch of power. And if crime grows as it is today, it may become the only branch of government.

"We'll have a bandit-ocracy."

Most people mutter about it to themselves, but there is little public outcry -- only a weary acceptance. From time to time a particularly bloody or shocking murder will set off loud official indignation, but nothing ever comes of it.

The latest uproar over crime arose last week after a member of Parliament was gunned down on the steps of his home.

Andrei Aizderdzis, 35, a relatively unknown centrist member of the State Duma, was killed by a shotgun blast to the throat.

Various motives have been suggested: political feuding in the Moscow suburb where he lived, or his ties to a bank or his involvement with a newspaper that recently printed the names of 266 Russian gangsters.

After his death, furious members of the Duma demanded the resignation of the minister of the interior, who supervises the police. They railed at the government as inept. They asserted that Russia's very statehood was at stake.

But if experience is any guide, nothing much will happen.

While the crime rate is still lower than in the United States, it is growing rapidly, having risen by about 250 percent since 1990. And it is flagrant in a way that would not be tolerated in many other countries.

Crime is there for all to see, and police ignore it, even when cracking down on some obvious examples might inspire public confidence.

The taxis at all Moscow airports, for example, are controlled by mafias, which set the cost of the taxi ride and decide which drivers will be permitted to work there.

The cost is exorbitant -- usually $50 or more in a city where it takes many people two weeks to earn that much money. The taxi drivers offer constant and visible proof to Russians arriving in Moscow from the provinces just who is in control here.

And though opening the airports to government-regulated cabs or metered taxis would seem a relatively simple police action that would send a powerful message, the mafias operate unfettered.

"The police don't do anything about crime," said Alexei Famin, a crime reporter for the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomoletz. "They especially don't do anything about the mafia or the airports because the police are paid by the criminals."

Policemen, Mr. Famin said, earn about 250,000 rubles a month (about $140). "The mafia offers 10 times as much," he said, "so would you resist the temptation?"

Citizens stay home at night, fearful that the streets have become the realm of gangsters, and they don't take any action on their own: There are no anti-crime demonstrations or block associations or even angry telegrams to politicians.

Some Russians speculate that Soviet power left the average person passive and without any sense of personal responsibility. They suggest that most people with gumption were either killed or demoralized in earlier years. Others blame the general chaos and disorganization left by the collapse of communism.

Various government agencies still have enormous power to levy taxes or give special breaks, making them susceptible to corruption.

The laws are so unclear, unpredictable and even at times draconian, that many businessmen ignore them, leaving them vulnerable to mafia extortion.

A government report prepared for President Boris N. Yeltsin earlier this year estimated that 70 percent to 80 percent of private businesses and banks in Russian cities pay 10 percent to 20 percent of their turnover to gangsters.

The report distinguished crime here from that in the West. "There, organized crime controls only 'criminal' activities, like prostitution, drugs and gambling. In our country, it controls all types of activity."

One popular bar a short walk from the Kremlin is operated by a Western firm that reportedly pays $5,000 each week in protection money, one diplomat said. He estimated that those payments represented $1 on the cost of each $4 draft beer.

At another Western bar, more secluded and therefore even more vulnerable, a draft beer costs $7.50, leaving customers to speculate wildly on how much protection that business pays.

Vyacheslav Igrunov, a member of the State Duma who also is a political scientist, said that organized crime existed even during the Soviet years: "They are well organized, while the state system is disorganized and ruined. The entire economic system and state authority is corrupted."

He said that government policy has encouraged crime through low pay and capricious policies. One example was a reorganization of the KGB that angered many employees and sent them looking elsewhere for work. "They could have been used to combat crime," he said. "Instead, many of them are now committing it."

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