May 25, 2020
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The Terror Within

As organised crime continues to spread its tentacles, a corrupt and co-opted administration seems hardly up to the challenge

The Terror Within

AMERICAN businessman Paul Tatum, co-owner of the luxury Radisson Slavyanskaya hotel and president of the American business centre, was gunned down just a few yards from the hotel on November 4 night. After shooting him 11 times with a Kalashnikov semi-automatic rifle, the killer fled, leaving the gun on the scene. Tatum was a pioneer of foreign investment in Russia and, besides leaving the entire foreign business community in Russia in shock, his murder has once again highlighted the crime and violence in the country. So much so that a leading liberal daily, Izvestia, made the exasperated contention that Russia is no longer a state, but just a collection of mafia rings, big and small.

In his first televised address after his July re-election, President Boris Yeltsin had promised the nation that the crackdown on crime and corruption would be "one of the main directions of my work". However, four months later his statement remains a vague promise. While crime and lawlessness are running rampant, security bosses in their heavily-guarded apartments and bullet-proof Mercedes-600s are failing to meet the biggest domestic challenge faced by post-communist Russia.

And the ouster of Alexander Lebed as the country’s security chief last month, following unprecedented mud-slinging in the Kremlin, has only added to the widespread public scepticism regarding the authorities’ ability to transform their new anti-crime zeal into tangible results any time soon.

The hard-boiled Lebed, who secured third place in the initial round of the presidential ballot on the strength of his tough anti-crime stand and contributed to Yeltsin’s ultimate victory in the run-off after being co-opted into the administration, had named organised crime as one of the principal threats to national security. "First we try to undermine the financial sources of organised crime, then deal with corrupt persons and bosses of the underworld," he said while outlining his strategy at his first press conference in Moscow. This struck the right chord with the people, who pinned hopes on Lebed pursuing a long-awaited crackdown on the criminal world.

In his anti-crime drive, Lebed was supposed to use the help of the Federal Security Service (FSB)—the counter-intelligence branch of the former all-powerful Soviet KGB. The new head of the service and Lebed’s protege, Nikolai Kovalev, repeatedly emph-asised that he would focus on the corruption in the government, carrying out sting operations against suspect officials.

However, just days after Lebed’s removal on dubious charges by Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov that he was planning a coup d’etat, a powerful anti-Lebed group in the Kremlin warned the FSB of the dangers of dabbling in political intrigue—a clear signal that it should abandon Lebed’s methods of work and by no means support him anymore. Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin told FSB leaders they "should not use the process of democratic reforms to create extremist, militarised, terrorist and other formations". Experts read it as an allusion to Lebed’s "squadrons of death" which were aimed at wiping out criminal elements.

Meanwhile, a top security official has been fired for calling a news conference to criticise Kulikov. Vladimir Rushailo, the head of the Moscow Regional Organised Crime Administration which was set up in 1993 and is modelled on the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, was sacked after his action was regarded as a "gross violation of discipline".

This lack of direction in the upper echelons of power over how to conduct anti-crime drives has ensured a free reign for criminals. Most of them operate freely without fear of being detected. In fact, the overall crime situation in Russia has grown steadily worse since the inception of free market reforms in 1991, and this year 3.5 million criminal acts have already been registered. Mafia shoot-outs are a daily occurrence and are no longer front-page stuff in the Russian media and are often relegated to "other news" columns. According to the Russian Internal Ministry, in four far-eastern and Siberian regions (where the law and order situation is the worst) there are 1,500 crimes committed per 100,000 people.

Predictably, ‘ordinary’ thefts and muggings account for almost 50 per cent of all breaches of law. But, although the police claim that the nationwide crime rate had actually decreased by 2 per cent from 1995, it has shown an upward trend in 34 out of 85 regions with crimes like "acts of banditry" rising by 7 per cent (as per the Russian Criminal Code). Drug-related crimes have also increased by a third in the course of one year, with 40,000 cases registered throughout the country. "It is the rise of crimes like murder, extortion and abduction that cause the most worry, as they are usually linked with the economy and the government," says Alexander Zhilin, security editor at the Moscow News weekly. "In a society where law-abiding has not been a recognised virtue either under the Tsars or, even more so, under the communists, the redistribution of state property and amassing of primary capital frequently follows a criminal pattern."

ACCORDING to experts, in the absence of adequate protection for businessmen under the law, criminal groups, along with indulging in straightforward racketeering and money-laundering, have become ‘brokers’ in business disputes, settling them with their own specific methods. More than 200 Russian bankers and businessmen have been killed in the last year either because they refused to pay protection money to gangs or because assassins were hired by their rivals. Compounding the problem is the fact that many Russian businessmen, both from the state and private sectors, are wary of the police themselves as they operate in the ‘grey market’ to avoid excessive taxation and have to use bribery to cull favours from the bureaucracy. According to Internal Ministry sources, every 10th crime in Russia is ‘white-collar’.

The national law enforcement system has little to pitch against this "limitless chaos", as the Russians term the situation. Investigative departments of local attorney offices are so understaffed they have to hire students as part-time agents. Charged suspects face long delays in police proceedings. Most of the judges are single women aged 35-45 and earning just 200,000 rou-bles ($40) a month. Every rookie with a gun and 20 million roubles in his pocket can frighten them or buy their verdicts.

Employees of the Internal Ministry’s crime department were flabbergasted earlier this year at the speed with which a New York court found Alexander Ivankov, emigre boss of one the leading Russian mafia gangs, guilty of extortion, which could carry a 40-year sentence. "We can only dream of that," one of them told journalists.

YELTSIN’S July decree was seen as an attempt to rectify the situation, starting with Moscow, which as the Segod nya daily puts it, "has turned into a federal criminal den." According to the document, the number of police personnel, including "rapid deployment units", will be increased by 19,000 men, while the special "tax police" strength will be upped by 1,000. The capital’s criminal courts will have 650 new judges, their salaries increased two-fold.

While new regulations allow the police to pick up, detain and "evict from Moscow" vagabonds and beggars, more importantly, they allow for the confiscation of assets and cash of criminal-front companies for police needs. Officials suspected of corruption and liaisons with the underworld can now, on police request, be temporarily removed from office pending the completion of investigations. Another important feature is the creation, for the first time in Russia, of a protection system for witnesses, crime victims and judges.

The decree puts the onus of checking crime within a definite timeframe on the heads of law-enforcement bodies. Moscow is seen as a test case for the strategy which, if successful, could be employed nationwide. The first opportunity to try out the new regulations came in the wake of the two bomb blasts that rocked downtown Moscow on July 11 and 12, ripping apart two trolley-buses and injuring more than 40 people. Immediately, 30,000 police and Internal Ministry troops were deployed on the city streets to patrol every subway, car and bus. In just two days after the blasts, the police detained 5,770 persons. But it was the Chechens and anyone else with a darker skin who got the most attention. One of the victims, Ruslan, alleged that the police took his documents and threw him into a cell for 24 hours, offering no explanation.

 "No good cause justifies illegal means," points out Yuri Feofanov, a Moscow-based human rights expert. "If the authorities think that by evicting vagabonds and Chechens they are fighting crime, then the decree will flop like all the previous ones. It is not vagabonds who stage terrorist acts, commit murders and rob the state coffers." 

A telling example to prove Feofanov’s words was the mosque raid by the riot police in central Moscow last month. Nearly 30 worshippers, mostly from Somalia, the northern Caucasus and Central Asia, were detained for 24 hours, some of them humiliated and beaten. The police gave different versions of the incident, saying only eight people were detained as "they were registered as living in Chechnya" and "nobody was beaten". They said the mosque was a prime meeting point for law-breakers. 

"We left the mosque and three policemen took us to the bus. One person protested and he was hit in the solar plexus with a machine-gun," says 19-year-old Rashid Tolchiev, one of the detainees. "They told us to bend our heads. One man said he only bowed before Allah and he was beaten. They slandered our religion as well—they said filthy things about Islam." Muslim leaders said this was the first time Moscow police had entered a mosque to check papers and called the detention a calculated move against Moscow’s minorities. "This would not happen in any other country," says deputy Imam Farid Sayfulin.

But it is not street violence and abuse of power by local policemen which pose the main problem. The litmus test for the authorities comes when they try to tackle the core of crime, which as experts allege "goes to the highest levels in Russia". Moscow’s Mayor Yuri Luzhkov drew ire from local business lobbies when he started to close down most of the city’s 72 casinos as "places attracting criminal money". And the November 10 blast, which left 13 dead, at a memorial service for an Afghan war veteran, allegedly by a rival veteran lobby, has only highlighted the ranks into which criminalisation has spread.

It will be even more difficult to deal with government corruption. According to the Novaya Gazeta daily, top Kremlin officials like former deputy premier Oleg Soskovets and the now-sacked presidential bodyguard Alexander Korzhakov themselves have been implicated in connection with mafia dealings and for siphoning off state money to open accounts abroad. And with the country’s governance being held hostage by Kremlin intrigue, not many harbour a hope of corrupt politicians being brought to book or crime being fought successfully.

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