Out of Russia: Soaring crime hands liberals the hot potato

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MOSCOW - The harvest is upon us and I have been wondering how to protect my dacha potato crop against the thieves who walked off with it last year.

The dramatic rise in thefts of all kinds across the country suggests extreme measures may be necessary, and some of my fellow potato growers have already taken them.

One man near Birobidzhan, a small town in eastern Russia that is the capital of the Jewish autonomous region, shot dead two men who were digging up his crop. Others have put up electric fences and employed armed vigilante groups.

My friend Volodya, who lives in the village, has promised to keep an eye on my potatoes, but with the end of summer and the chill of autumn already in the air he is often to be found engaging in festive activities and cannot be relied upon.

I shall have to take a chance. And what a chance it is.

In the new Russia, robbers are removing anything that is not nailed down - and even things that are. Throughout the nation, crimes of all kinds are up by one-third on the first six months of last year.

The number of premeditated murders increased by 25 per cent and the rise is higher in the cities.

In Moscow, crime grows because the city is becoming a haven for fugitives. Under Communism all residents had to have permits to live here but since that system was abolished, the city has become a hide-out for bandits, mostly from Transcaucasia, say the police.

These 'visitors' account for 37 per cent of the robberies, 45 per cent of the muggings, 48 per cent of the swindles and 60 per cent of drug-related crimes. In the first six months of this year, guns were used on 3,800 occasions, resulting in 712 deaths. Most of the weapons have been stolen from the army, or lost by servicemen. More than 200 police officers were killed last year for their weapons.

The population is arming itself. Two-and-a-half million Russians legally own hunting rifles, and another half a million are owned by guards and detectives, but the rise in the use of firearms for crime has prompted MPs to draw up a liberal 'private weapons' bill.

If passed, and it seems it will be, it would remove all restrictions on the sale of guns to be kept at home. It has the backing of the Interior Ministry, which governs police forces. Officials estimate that if the bill is passed there will be a demand for between 20-50 million firearms.

The average black market price for a pistol or a rifle is 50,000 roubles (pounds 160) and the state already has these weapons in stock. The MPs calculate that the 'private weapons' bill could add 10bn roubles to the state budget.

With such an arsenal it would appear to be inevitable that crimes involving firearms will rise, which in turn means that Russia's low-key debate about the death penalty will also take on a new urgency.

Russia leads the world in executions. When social statistics were declassified in 1985 Russians discovered that 700 people had been executed that year - traditionally carried out with a shot in the back of the head.

In Russia, capital punishment was abolished four times but it always came back. President Yeltsin alone can grant a pardon, but he relies on the so- called 'pardoning department' that in turn relies on old-style conservative officials still in place for the moment despite the end of Communism.

With the spread of private ownership, new laws will have to be written governing trespass and the use of lethal force in the protection of property. Will potato growers be allowed to kill robbers and get away with it, for example?

In one of his more festive moods recently, Volodya had an answer. Keep rabbits, he said. The thieves will take the rabbits and leave the potatoes alone. Thanks, Volodya.