Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 31

Seventeen police officers who died in the February 10 blaze in the Interior Ministry’s Samara regional headquarters were buried over the weekend. Among those who attended the funeral were Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin and conductor Mystaslav Rostropovich. According to one report, the death toll had reached fifty-one. Many are missing, however, and the death toll is expected to reach more than seventy. Dozens were injured in the fire (Russian agencies, February 14).

While officials initially said that the most likely cause of the fire was a short-circuit, officials are suggesting foul play. While a final official conclusion has yet to be made, Stepashin said during the funeral: “Let no one think–either in Samara, or in Togliatti, or in other cities of [the] Samara [region]–that they will escape responsibility. No. They will not escape responsibility.” Following the ceremony, Stepashin said his mention of Togliatti was not accidental. Other Interior Ministry officials said the fire had probably started in one of the offices of the local Interior Ministry’s economic crime unit, which had been investigating criminal activity at the AvtoVAZ automobile factory, which is located in nearby Togliatti (NTV, February 14).

AvtoVAZ, the heavily indebted state automobile company, which produces Lada and Zhiguli cars, has been the subject of an investigation over the last two years. In late 1997, anti-organized crime unites were stationed inside the factory in order to shut down the operations by middle men, allegedly mafia-controlled, who were taking cars right off the assembly line. Investigators reported that criminal groups controlled 80 percent of the cars manufactured in Togliatti (NTV, February 14). One Russian television channel reported: “Witnesses claim that February 10 and 11 were a real holiday for Togliatti criminal authorities, who were the subject of criminal investigations” (RTR, February 13).

Stepashin said that while all the documents pertaining to AvtoVAZ investigation were kept in the Samara Interior Ministry headquarters, duplicates had been made and sent to Moscow. This, he said, plus the “memory” of the ministry’s investigators, means that the investigations of mafia penetration of AvtoVAZ will continue (NTV, February 14).