Criminals are boring Russians to death

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WORRIED by falling business, a Hamburg travel agent persuaded five German journalists to go to St Petersburg and prove that reports about soaring crime in Russia were exaggerated.

After four days roaming the old imperial capital, they reported no bad experiences. 'The elevators here are more dangerous than the crime,' said one of the group, art writer Christian Troester.

At the end of their stay, however, as the journalists gathered in a bar, one of them rushed in and said she had just been robbed.

Is crime in Russia exaggerated? The Russian government and the police certainly do not think so. Last Thursday, ministers met to discuss organised crime, after the police said the country was 'awash' with firearms leaked or stolen from the army, and that the murder rate had risen by 43 per cent over the past five months.

Ministers are drafting a bill, soon to be put to parliament, which aims to co-ordinate law-enforcement agencies and empower the police to target the mafia bosses.

President Boris Yeltsin, acutely aware of hardline political rivals' popularity, regularly agonises over the collapse of law and order, and promises that firm action will be taken. But in private, the poorly paid and badly equipped police admit their virtual impotence to combat an increasingly fearless and brutal criminal class.

An attempt on the life of Boris Berezovsky, head of the Logovaz car dealership, hit the headlines last Tuesday. He was leaving his Moscow office in his limousine when a bomb in a parked car was triggered by remote control. The car dealer's chauffeur was decapitated by the blast, but Mr Berezovsky suffered only minor injuries. Journalists homed in on this story - but they could equally well have written about two other bomb blasts in the city within hours of the attack on the Logovaz boss. Bombings are becoming 10 a penny in Russia these days, and several newspapers are carrying 'explosion round-up' columns. And shootings are so common that they are not reported unless a VIP is killed.

The press is also becoming weary of hostage-taking cases. When four gunmen kidnapped a group of schoolchildren last December and took them on a hair-raising helicopter journey over southern Russia, Russian and foreign journalists covered the crisis as it unfolded; but a copycat incident last month prompted Komsomolskaya Pravda to comment: 'This is getting boring.'

The media paid little attention last Wednesday when four prisoners in Yekaterinburg held a group of visitors hostage. One prisoner was killed by police, one escaped and two went back to their cells. The visitors were unharmed.

Journalists may be 'bored' but they are also afraid, which is why few of them are undertaking investigative reporting. And who can blame them? Crime investigation is a dangerous business, as a team from Tass found out to its cost. After the contract killing of a Georgian underworld figure a few weeks ago, journalists dared to describe him as a mafia godfather instead of the mealy-mouthed 'head of a sports veterans' fund' favoured by other reporters. Later their apartments were burgled - and now they are 'not in the mood' to reveal anything else about the case.

Some observers are tempted to shrug and say that while violence is indeed rising sharply, it does not really matter, because rival gangs are simply settling scores, and the law-abiding citizen is not much affected. But this is not true. Good people are suffering - and not just the passers-by when a bomb goes off. Tourists may be a frequent target, but those who are bearing the brunt are poor Russians.

They have been falling victim to two particularly mean types of crime. In the first, though no violence is involved, pensioners and people on low incomes have been losing their savings to the many 'investment funds' that have been offering fabulous rates of interest, then disappearing with cash.

The second reflects the present lack of morality and mercy in Russia, and often involves murder. Confidence tricksters are persuading old people, alcoholics and the mentally subnormal to give them power of attorney over their financial affairs and property.

This can seem an attractive proposition to a pensioner who needs advice about, say, renting out a flat. As soon as the papers are signed, giving the criminals all rights to the property, the victims are either turned out of their flats to join the army of homeless on the streets, or are simply killed.

My landlady is an alcoholic. Last week a gang threatened her with a knife and made her sell them the flat in which I am living. We went to the police, which few victims here do. Though I am still staying in the flat, my landlady has been forced to move in with relatives. We are waiting to see who will turn out to be stronger: the police or the mafia.

(Photograph omitted)