Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 221

There has been much good news out of Russia recently, including continued economic growth and ongoing reform of both the economic and judicial spheres. Last month, for example, the State Duma passed a final version of a new Criminal Procedural Code that, among other things, will over time transfer the right to issue warrants for searches and arrests from prosecutors to the courts and institute jury trials. While aspects of the new code are controversial, few observers argue that it is not an improvement over the old one (Moscow Times, November 23; see also the Monitor, July 16, June 21). These and other trends give good grounds for saying, as a leading Western newspaper did last week, that “Russia’s problems today pale beside those of five years ago” (Financial Times, November 30).

One problem getting less attention these days than during the 1990s is crime–specifically, organized crime. This may in part be a function of the perception that Russia became increasingly stable as a result of the August 1998 financial crisis and postcrisis recovery, the retirement of Vladimir Putin’s mercurial predecessor and the new president’s image as a tough enforcer. Indeed, it is rather ironic that throughout the previous decade opinion polls showed crime near or at the top of the Russian public’s concerns and that then President Boris Yeltsin declared at least a half a dozen anticrime campaigns, though to little avail. Putin, meanwhile, has not made it a major issue, at least publicly.

This is not, however, because the problems of crime and organized of crime have faded. Indeed, the Interior Ministry reported last month that the number of crimes of all types connected to organized crime groups increased by 83 percent over the past year and that more than 6,600 members of criminal gangs had been charged with crimes since the start of this year, up more than 35.5 percent over last (, November 20). In October, the Interior Ministry reported that Russia’s murder rate was the world’s second highest, behind that of South Africa (see the Monitor, October 3). While most murders in Russia are the result of domestic disputes or “hooliganism,” assassinations carried out by organized crime groups remain a serious problem. This is clear from the crime reports of Russia’s major newspapers and news agencies.

For example, around midnight on Saturday (December 1), two people were shot on a western Moscow street by gunmen who then escaped in a car. One victim died on the spot, the other was seriously wounded. Police officials, who said the shootings bore the hallmarks of a mafia-style hit, found documents on the wounded victim identifying him as an employee of the Kremlin administration and director of the Arbat Hotel, but did not rule out that the documents were fake (Radio Ekho Moskvy, December 2). The previous day (November 30) two men were shot to death outside an apartment building on Moscow’s Rublevskoe Highway. Police said the victims were members of the capital’s Orekhov criminal group. The killer dumped his AK-47 at the scene of the crime–standard procedure in contract killings–before fleeing (Interfax, November 30). On November 28, three gunmen in black masks entered the Gagra café in central Moscow and shot two people, killing one and wounding the other. The gunmen escaped (, November 28). On November 20, a businessman in the capital was seriously wounded after being shot in the back by an unidentified female. Police investigators said they suspect the shooter was a woman sought in connection with the double homicide of two Moscow businessmen on September 21. The woman is apparently responsible for other hits: Earlier this year, an arrested criminal told police he had carried out contract murders with a woman known in the criminal underworld as “Nikita” (, November 20). On November 2, Sergei Balashov, deputy prefect of Moscow’s western district, was shot to death as he got out of his car near his office. The shooter–who, according to Balashov’s chauffeur, used a pistol with a silencer–escaped with an accomplice. Balashov oversaw construction projects in a prestigious part of Moscow and police believe that his murder was connected with his work (Moscow Times, November 5; Kommersant, November 3;, November 2). On October 24, a car belonging to the director of a Moscow-based Internet company was destroyed by a bomb blast equal to 200 grams of TNT. Luckily for the businessman, he was not in the car when it blew up (, November 24). The previous day (October 23), the sports journalist Vasily Utkin was shot in the back while walking from his apartment to his job at the editorial office of the Gazeta web newspaper ( in central Moscow. The shooter escaped in a waiting car. Utkin underwent surgery, but the bullet had not hit any of his vital organs. Police were quoted as saying the attacker–who was probably aiming to intimidate the journalist, not kill him–may have been either an unhappy sports fan, a member of “the sports mafia” or a gambling-debt collector (Moskovsky Komsomolets, October 24).