Two gentlemen of Vilnius just want to help: Adrian Bridge finds that racketeering is a way of life in the Lithuanian capital and few people have any inclination to fight back

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The Independent Online
THE 'gentlemen' in shiny suits only wanted to help. It had pained them to hear that some of the hotel waiters had been getting drunk while on duty. They had been distressed to learn that the security men had been behaving less than honestly. 'We thought you ought to know the full extent of the problem,' they told the hotel manager. 'And we really would like to take care of things for you.'

The visit of the two men had long been expected. They did not need to introduce themselves or to explain their mission more clearly. For weeks almost 100 of their underlings - teenage boys dressed in garish jogging suits and white socks - had been making their presence only too painfully felt in the hotel. Through a mixture of shouting, drinking and generally throwing their weight around, their 'boys' had succeesfully intimidated all the hotel's genuine guests and completely destroyed an attempt to take the place up-market.

Now the time had come to negotiate the terms for a cessation of hostilities. It was business as usual in Vilnius.

Unlike most Lithuanian entrepreneurs, the manager of the hotel - who only spoke on condition of anonymity - refused to pay up, and firmly showed the two 'gentlemen' to the door. But the very next day he called in a new team of security guards. Their task, paradoxically, was to protect him from those offering him 'protection'. And this time he did not want to take any chances. Unlike the last lot, these were real professionals: all former employees of the KGB.

'I did not care a bit about their background. Actually, I welcomed it,' said the manager. 'All I was concerned about was getting the rabble-rousers out - and keeping them there.'

As elsewhere in the former Communist world, racketeering has become something of a way of life in Lithuania since it regained its independence in 1991. From humble street kiosks to more sophisticated Western-style shops and restaurants, no commercial establishment is free of the harassment of street gangs demanding at least 10 per cent of the takings.

In addition to extortion, the gangs, loosely referred to as the 'mafia' and said to be run by Russians, Jews, Lithuanians and even Chechens, are widely involved in prostitution, gun-running, drug- dealing, uranium-selling, trading in stolen cars and just about anything and everything that falls into the category of organised crime.

For ordinary Lithuanians, struggling to make ends meet in the harsh economic world of post-Communism, the sight of trained thugs strutting around town, laying down the law and flaunting their wealth in flashy new BMWs, is quite sickening. But few complain or come forward as witnesses to crimes. 'Most people are simply too scared to resist,' said the hotel manager 'After 50 years of Soviet oppression, it is not easy to stand up and fight back.'

Rarely a week passes without reports in the press of another bombing (somebody falling behind with the payments) or shooting (more often than not a grubby dispute between members of rival gangs).

But in addition to the street mobs, the claws of organised crime are said to have reached right up into the highest organs of the Lithuanian state: into big business, the government, the civil service, and even into the judiciary and the police force.

'The scale of the problem is so vast and the resources at our disposal so limited that sometimes it appears an impossible task,' complained Ricardas Pocius, an officer with the Vilnius division of Interpol. 'In general, the mafia have better cars, guns and equipment than the police. But, above all, they have far more money. They can easily bribe their way out of awkward situations.'

For a long time, the government sought to play down the issue. But, after a particularly intensive bombing campaign early last year, it was finally persuaded in July to pass a tough new law on preventive detention. Under the law, which has been fiercely criticised by human rights groups, the police are allowed to detain anyone suspected of involvement with organised crime for up to two months without bringing charges. By the end of the year just under 300 people had been held under the new law, with more than half of them subsequently brought to trial.

'Several of the ringleaders who caused me such problems have been held under the law - I think it is fantastic,' said the hotel manager. 'I know such measures would never be accepted in the West, but here they are absolutely essential. Putting these people away for two months hurts them like hell - and perhaps makes them think twice before striking out again. In the long run, we can only hope that it will help to turn the tide. If it does not, then ultimately I, too, will have little choice but to pay up.'