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Thug Capitalism Drives Up Crime In Russia, Testing New Freedoms

A DECADE ago, most of the 250 or so people murdered each year in Moscow were -- just as in London or New York -- victims of someone they knew. And 93 percent of killers were caught.

Today, that picture is reversed. Only a quarter of the 1,820 murder victims in the Russian capital last year knew their assailants. And less than half the city's murder mysteries were solved.

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Those grim figures illustrate several alarming trends in Russia's crime scene, law-enforcement agents here say: Crime is on the rise, its motives are changing, and the authorities are losing control.

At the same time, enemies of democratic reforms in Russia are blaming unaccustomed freedoms for the crime crisis. They're winning widespread support among ordinary Russians who say they would welcome a crackdown, even if it impinged on civil liberties.

''A majority of people, between 60 and 70 percent, say they would like to adopt any extraordinary measures to fight criminality,'' says Yuri Levada, head of the Russian Center for Public Opinion Research.

Indeed, 40 percent of Russian respondents to Dr. Levada's regular polls now say they are afraid to walk the streets. That fear, according to Gennady Ponamaryov, Moscow's outgoing prosecutor general, does not match reality.

Street crime in Moscow, like muggings, is rising, he says, but only by the same rate as overall crime -- a little over 5 percent a year for the past seven years, since former President Mikhail Gorbachev began to reform the then-Soviet Union.

But more alarming, Mr. Ponamaryov says, serious crime associated with gangland activities such as murder and fraud, is skyrocketing. This widely reported trend that is feeding public concern. While Moscow's overall crime rate during January and February this year was up by 6.4 percent from last year, serious crimes were up by 110 percent, says Ponamaryov.

Kidnapping, drugs and weapons trafficking, murder: ''In our view, these are the sort of crimes that will increase, and in most cases they are linked to organized crime,'' whose tentacles have reached deep into the business world and into government, Ponamaryov says.

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Russia's headlong and little-regulated race from a state-run economy to unrestrained capitalism, involving the rapid sale of almost all government enterprises, has created a vicious world where questionable business practices and mobsters go hand in hand.

''In our haste to reorganize society and achieve a market economy, we allowed the redistribution of state property to turn into robbery,'' complains Ponamaryov.

And as emerging business empires fight for profits, they do so ''not through honest competition, but by bribing government bureaucrats and politicians, using their thugs,'' explains Leonid Nikitinsky, a prominent legal expert.

The police are not in a position to do much about it, he says, partly because the underworld is changing as fast as Russian society is in general, and it is hard to develop a reliable network of informers -- a crucial tool to police worldwide.

Nor are the country's ever-changing laws taken seriously either by the police or by society, Mr. Nikitinsky points out.

At the same time, ''When salaries in the police department and prosecutor's office are so negligible, and morale so low, it is absolutely natural that there should be corruption,'' Nikitinsky adds.

Corruption, acknowledges Ponamaryov, is now ''a phenomenon that has widely engulfed both the law-enforcement system and the official authorities of the executive branch.''

When the popular television talk-show host and director-designate of a new Russian television channel, Vladislav Listyev, was gunned down on March 1, apparently by a contract killer, President Boris Yeltsin's immediate reaction was to fire Moscow prosecutor general Ponamaryov along with the city's police chief.

The move has drawn sharp criticism. As legal commentator Yuri Feofanov wrote recently in the daily Izvestiya, ''If the president could find no other response to the hideous crime than to sack a couple of officials, this only confirms the authorities' impotence to deal with the situation by regular legal means.''

Mr. Yeltsin also hinted at a readiness to resort to nonlegal means himself. ''In Uzbekistan, they seized and executed six groups of bandits. They were executed by Interior Ministry bodies, and things began to improve immediately,'' he recalled.

Such remarks, argues pollster Levada, may be popular, ''but they are very dangerous -- even more dangerous than criminality itself, because they are an attempt to establish a military-police dictatorship.''

Though harsh emergency measures might put a lid on crime for a while, most Russians at all levels of society appear to be resigned to the fact that criminals are too firmly entrenched in power to be beaten.

''This is the price we have paid for the development of our society,'' says Nikitinsky. ''For me, freedom is the supreme value, but we have paid a high price for it. Now all we can do is to confront any kind of dictatorship and support democracy, in the hope that it will civilize itself.''

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