Although the Kremlin was having trouble facing reality in Chechnya, it showed signs of being more prepared to face up to another intractable domestic problem. Boris Yeltsin had repeatedly highlighted the issue of crime, and particularly organized crime, during his tenure, but had been either unwilling or unable to do anything about it. His successor, however, had rarely addressed the issue since becoming head of state at the start of 2000. This surprised some observers, given Putin’s image–at least in relation to Chechnya–as a tough law-and-order guy. But on February 11 he put the crime issue back in the limelight, using the opportunity of an address to the collegium of the Prosecutor General’s Office to paint a rather terrifying picture of the crime situation across Russia. Murders, kidnapping and mugging, Putin said, had become facts of everyday life, while the mafia continued to control “a significant portion” of the Russian economy. The country’s businessmen, Putin continued, remained trapped between criminals, on the one hand, and law enforcers who behaved criminally, on the other. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of criminal were on the loose throughout the country, including 7,000 murderers, while the authorities were unable to account for the fate of 30,000 Russians who disappear without a trace each year.
It remained to be seen whether Putin’s anticrime demarche would, like those of his predecessor, amount to anything more than rhetoric. Some observers, however, predicted that it presaged a purge of the law enforcement establishment, and some of the prosecutors on hand for Putin’s speech reportedly looked distinctly uncomfortable as they listened.