Mayor demands troops to fight Russia's deadly 'mafia': Gangster activity in St Petersburg is spectacular, bloody, and on the increase -and foreigners are not immune, reports Andrew Higgins

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The Independent Online
THE STRUGGLE, such as it is, against the most brazen branch of Russia's underworld is fought from a sinister eight-storey bunker faced in brown granite and known to both sides of the law in St Petersburg as 'The Big Building'.

Measured against the Mob, though, police HQ in Russia's second city shrinks to a puny, almost pathetic presence. It needs phones, 800 new cars and 5,000 recruits just to bring the force up to strength.

'Totally outclassed by the criminal element,' is how the US Consulate-General describes St Petersburg police in a report urging solo tourists to stay away from the city because 'chances are your visit could develop into your worst nightmare'.

Other visits degenerate into costly farce. Last month a Greek- born British businessman, Miltos Louisides, had dollars 15,000 ( pounds 10,000) stolen from his room at the Grand Hotel Europe, the city's most sumptuous. It was taken, he says, by a thief who bribed his way through the door with the help of a Snickers chocolate bar.

Big-time mobsters carry more lethal weapons. St Petersburg police last year seized 2,730 firearms, including 123 grenades and 21 machine-guns. 'Criminals are better armed than ever, often highly informed about the victims they select and more arrogant than ever against the badly outnumbered and beleaguered local police forces,' says the US consulate.

The most alarmist note has been sounded by St Petersburg's own mayor, Anatoly Sobchak.

He sent a letter to the Kremlin pleading for special powers to combat crime, including the right to call out army units. Crime, he said, was 'intolerable'.

But he also insists that his city is far less dangerous than New York or Naples. Statistically this is true, despite complaints from the central municipal morgue that a flood of unclaimed bodies points to a quadrupling of the murder rate since 1990. Police, when not complaining of having to queue to make phone calls and hitch lifts to raids, also look to the slums of North America and southern Italy for solace. 'The situation here is absolutely normal,' says Dmitri Shakanov, deputy chief of the organised-crime division.

What passes for normality in St Petersburg is a string of gangland spectaculars that would make Al Capone blanch. The year began with a bomb in an Italian shoe shop. The New Year's Eve blast sprayed charred footwear across Stone Island Prospekt. Next came a traffic accident which led to a barbecue of 10 bullet-riddled bodies in a wood outside the city. All had been shot dead in a wild shoot-out triggered by a collision between a mobster's mini-van and a car driven by a rival gang.

No less ghoulish was the sight that greeted traffic police early one morning in February when they pulled over a Zhiguli car limping through St Petersburg with a Mercedes in tow: three corpses wrapped in canvas in the back seat, four more in the boot. The victims, according to police, were racketeers murdered after a businessman they had tried to extort dollars 65,000 from hired a gang of Tajik killers.

Such episodes attract attention but, police argue, should not worry ordinary citizens. The most savage killings are put down to 'razborki' - the settling of scores between rival gangs in what, despite the term 'mafia', remains a fragmented and chaotic criminal milieu.

Estimates for the number of mafia groups in Russia vary wildly from 150 to 5,000. Where the underworld ends and the world of business and politics begins, is a fuzzy, perhaps non-existent, frontier. A report commissioned by President Yeltsin estimates that between 70 and 80 per cent of Russia's kiosks, private shops and restaurants pay between 10 and 20 per cent of their incomes to gangsters.

The decrepitude of Russia's legal system is as much to blame for all this as the energy of its gangsters. The law, discredited by capricious enforcement and demoralised by political change, is widely seen as an enemy, not a friend.

Russia remains a nation governed by whim. In St Petersburg, many businessmen prefer the ugly but straightforward extortion of hoods to the unbridled gouging of police, tax inspectors and other grasping officials.

Foreigners pay up, too. 'In the past the local belief was that mafia restricted their activities to Russians, keeping their hands off the foreign business community,' warns the US consulate. 'If that situation was ever true it certainly now is no longer the case in St Petersburg.' According to Sergei Sidorenko, chief of the organised- crime division, at least one in five foreign ventures coughs up protection money. Who to pay off can be hazardous and confusing. Turf in St Petersburg is still being carved up. This holds for police as well as mobsters. While the Kazan, Tambov and Chechen gangs battle for territory, a feud rages between Mr Sobchak, the mayor, and the city's police chief, Arkady Kramarev. When Mr Sobchak wrote to the Kremlin asking for help he publicly jeered at his own police: 'Practically none of the contract murders of bankers and businessmen that occurred in 1993 have been solved.' He also asked Mr Yeltsin to 'strengthen' police leadership, tantamount to a plea for a purge.

There are whispers of vendetta. The mayor resents the fact that The Big Building reports to the Interior Ministry in Moscow, not local authorities. Mr Sobchak has lost several supporters to police corruption inquiries.

Among those entangled are Viktor Kharchenko, former chief of the Baltic Shipping Company, and Vladimir Kisilyov, concert impresario and former lead singer in a rock band called 'Earthling'.

Politics not crime, they say, lies behind Mr Sobchak's appeal for troops. So far, the Kremlin has declined to help. Oleg Lobov, head of the Security Council, ruled that Russia's military doctrine might permit the use of troops to combat crime.

But he stipulated that such soldiers be drawn not from Defence Ministry forces but from parallel units under the Interior Ministry.

On this score, at least, The Big Building can perhaps celebrate. Crime-fighting flags; in-fighting flourishes; and St Petersburg, the most magical and melancholy of Russian cities, slips further under the shadow of a reputation, overblown but hard to shake, as Russia's capital of crime.

(Photograph omitted)