Out of Russia: Gangsters lord it on the mean streets of Moscow

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - My friend Sergei (not his real name) is hiding in his mother's flat, terrified to go out since a mafia gang paid him a visit and hinted heavily that if he valued his life, he had better start co-operating with them. 'I can't go to the police,' he said. 'They only take an interest if someone has actually been shot and it has not come to that yet. Anyway, you can't trust the Moscow police.' So Sergei will just lie low in the hope that the racketeers may forget about him. Alternatively, he may try to take a holiday abroad.

Sergei's case is by no means the most dramatic in today's crime-ridden capital, which the daily Moscow Times has called 'Al Capone's Chicago with onion domes'.

But it very well illustrates how, while the politicians flounder in the Kremlin, armed gangsters have become the effective rulers of Russia, dictating to anyone with a spark of enterprise who has dared to take the promise of a free market at face value.

Sergei is a former translator who has done rather well for himself by trading in imported electronic goods. True, he has not paid all his taxes to the state but then, in this country where the state has for so long robbed its own people, show me a citizen who has. In every other respect, he is a decent businessman and has been satisfying a crying consumer demand.

Sergei's great love is music and recently he decided to plough the money he has made into a shop selling CDs and cassettes.

But he made the mistake of having the shabby former state premises smartly redecorated, with even a listening-room where potential buyers could select recordings at their leisure, and so he became visible to the mafia. Last week, just before the shop was due to open, a gang of hoodlums turned up and demanded an initial protection fee of 8m roubles ( pounds 5,500). They also said they could supply Sergei with CDs, suggesting that they wanted a deeper involvement in the venture.

Sergei described the gang members, who were an ethnic mix of Russians and Caucasians, as 'obvious criminals'. They sported tattoos, which in Russia is a fair indication that a person has been in jail. Sergei is cursing himself that he did not have the foresight to employ a proper security firm, although the fees would have been as high as the mafia's. He has lost all heart and stomach for his beloved music enterprise.

No doubt other businessmen, both Russian and foreign, are feeling as disheartened, for these days hardly a day goes by without some office, shop or restaurant being shut.

When the violence first started after the launch of Boris Yeltsin's reforms, honest people took the attitude that it didn't really concern them, as it was mostly gangsters settling scores among themselves. But in the space of one week at the end of last month, there were three murders involving respectable foreign firms, including the killing of a British citizen of Polish descent.

Mr Yeltsin may vow to make the fight against crime his priority, as he did again yesterday during a press conference marking the second anniversary of the failed hardline coup. But the reality is that the police, even if we assume that they are on the side of the public, are hopelessly overwhelmed by the mobsters, who are armed from the stocks of the leaky former Soviet army.

Jim Moody, head of the FBI's organised-crime department, who visited Moscow last week to discuss international police co-operation, also disclosed that the Russian gangsters had developed considerable links with the underworld abroad.

The sense that they are unassailable makes the hoods utterly brazen as they cruise around town in their Mercedes and BMW limousines while ordinary people are cowed and feel that cannot possibly stand up to the menace.

One day the gangsters forced one of their disloyal members to hang himself from the trolley-bus wires in the middle of the busy central Leningradsky Avenue. The next they killed two kiosk workers in passing as they attacked the Cafe Aist and murdered the manager. And the next day they sprayed the car showroom of an Italian-Russian venture with bullets, killing four people. In each case the police were nowhere to be seen.

The mafia attacks are becoming as common as war casualties in Nagorny Karabakh or Abkhazia and journalists are becoming jaded with the story instead of crusading against the killers. The latest incident this week involved some people who were shot while travelling in a Lincoln Continental limousine. I must admit that I did not take the trouble to report it. A colleague of mine was more conscientious. 'I looked long and hard at the story, trying to decide if it was news,' he said. 'In the end I did a short item but only because the Lincoln made a good angle.'