Moscow's mayor stacks the chips against casinos

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The Independent Online
The mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, proved yesterday that he is nothing if not plucky. He threw his weight behind the President's new war on the twin evils of organised crime and official corruption by declaring that the scores of casinos in his capital should be cut to only five.

If the move goes ahead, it will almost certainly trigger a conflict between the authorities and the Mafia, who have taken such deep root in Moscow since the collapse of the Soviet Union that the place now has the reputation of Chicago in the Twenties.

The mayor's remarks came as the city was clearing up after another bomb detonated on a trolleybus in its centre, the second in two days, prompting police to flood the streets and to declare a state of high alert. No one claimed responsibility for the blast, which injured 28, although it coincides with a sharp escalation of fighting in Chechnya. However, bombing is a favourite method of Russia's mobsters, who are unlikely to relish the latest moves to clamp down on their activities.

Earlier this week, Boris Yeltsin, vowing to "fight against corruption at all levels", signed a decree ordering a fierce drive against crime in the Moscow region. This includes deploying 10,000 more interior ministry police, encouraging informants by promises of new homes and identities, and doubling the (paltry) pay of judges. The President placed his new security supremo, retired general Alexander Lebed, in charge of implementing the plan, which is supposed to be a testing ground for a nationwide battle against crime.

In weighing in against the mob, the mayor, a close ally of Mr Yeltsin's, is taking on a formidable task. Six years after a German entrepreneur opened Moscow's first gaming house since the Bolshevik revolution, the number of gambling venues has risen to 577, including 72 casinos.

Although several of the city's gambling establishments are controlled by well-known figures - including the eye surgeon Svyateslav Fyodorov and Vladimir Semago, a Communist millionaire - scores operate in the dark recesses of the underworld, and are used for money laundering, prostitution rackets and drug running.

It remains to be seen whether much progress is made in the clean-up; relations between Russian officialdom and organised crime is tangled enough to justify strong doubts. But there is certainly a strong air of determination.

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