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Russia: Mobsters carve up the market: The Congress of People's Deputies today is billed as a showdown between 'Westernisers' and conservatives. Our Moscow staff consider life after Communism

Helen Womack
Tuesday 01 December 1992 00:02 GMT

EARLIER this year my Russian husband Costya had a run-in with the Moscow 'mafia'. He was shopping at the Tishinsky flea market when he saw an old, bent man trying to sell his war medal to make ends meet. The man wanted 500 roubles (now about 68p) but the trader, who would re-sell the medal to a foreign collector for hard currency, offered only 100 roubles.

Costya intervened to say the medal was worth more and the trader hit him. Costya tripped up the trader in a puddle and then the real trouble started. In a flash, Costya was surrounded by a dozen Chechens, people from the northern Caucasus, who dragged him into a shed and threatened him with knives until they were satisfied he was only trying to aid the old man, not challenge their rule of the Tishinsky market.

This is the mafia at its lowest level. Different gangs, often grouped along ethnic lines, have carved up the street markets and kiosk trade of the capital and take protection money from vendors in their areas, in exchange for which they drive off potential trading competitors and rival mafias.

The fruit and vegetable markets, where people from all over the former Soviet Union used to come to sell their wares, are now dominated by the Azeris, who take a cut not only of the profits but also of the income of the beggars who trail the wealthy customers. The taxis are run by Russian gangsters who periodically attack the 'black skins' or Caucasians and overturn their stalls. My own area of town is said to be ruled by the Georgian mafia. At night you can sometimes hear shots fired as they settle scores.

The mafia, however, goes far beyond these visible hoodlums in their leather jackets and gold jewellery. The police cannot be trusted, officials of the Moscow City administration take bribes to register new businesses or allocate premises and the waves of corruption almost certainly lap right up to the government.

The roots of the mafia go back to the Communist years when economic activity considered normal, even respectable, in capitalist countries was strictly outlawed here. You could go to jail for changing money or buying and selling. Goods of all kinds were in short supply and so criminals, or those regarded by the state as criminals, by satisfying consumer demand were able to invade the everyday spheres of life.

Today, business is dominated either by men with mafia backgrounds or former Communists because these are virtually the only people in Russia with money to invest. They have laundered their cash, become semi-respectable and drive around town in brand-new Mercedes or BMW cars. Their bodyguards are often former KGB heavies.

The whole atmosphere in Russia now is reminiscent of Wild West America in the 19th century. Everyone is out to make fast money, including some of the more unscrupulous Western businessmen who come here. The consumer has zero protection.

(Photographs omitted)

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