Debate - Opinion in English, Russia and Baltic States
Debate - Opinion in English
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The Long Arm of Organized Crime Reaches Deeply Into St. Petersburg's Cemeteries By Daniel Williams 05/28/00 ST. PETERSBURG -- According to the official price list, you can be buried at Krasnenskoye Cemetery in St. Petersburg for about $35. But don't bet your life on it. Gravediggers hanging around the entrance the other day were quick to point out that it's crowded in there, what with all the Heroes of Labor and former Communist Party officials laid to rest. So, it is necessary to pay more: $1,500, say, for a spot that visitors don't have to step over jumbled tombstones to reach. Maybe somewhere near the path, grave marker not included. The price difference, St. Petersburg officials and local gunmen say, has less to do with supply and demand than with control of city cemeteries by organized crime. Gangsters reap the excess profits, in the form of markups and bribes, estimated by a local newspaper to total $7 million a year. In St. Petersburg, that's no surprise to local residents. Here in Russia's second largest city, criminal groups dominate or fight over businesses ranging from gasoline supplies and real estate to timber milling and parts of the seaport. One result has been a wave of professional killings carried out by gangs seeking to expand their market share. Since the beginning of the year, 17 deaths in St. Petersburg have been classified as contract killings--professional hits on rival gangsters or on legitimate businessmen trying to operate independently. Since 1997, 200 deaths have been labeled killings for hire. Other costs to St. Petersburg are economic and symbolic. St. Petersburg's position on the Baltic Sea, which is bordered by such prosperous countries as Sweden and Germany, ought to have restored the city's original role as Russia's window to modernity and the West. Instead, it's the Wild West. The wide open nature of the problems would seem to make the city ripe for an anti-crime crusade promised repeatedly by Russia's new president, Vladimir Putin, a St. Petersburg native. But during Putin's more than nine months in Russia's two top jobs--first as prime minister, and since January, as president--crime has marched on unabated and unpunished. This spring, Putin seemed ready to take a direct hand in cleaning up St. Petersburg. He promoted Valentina Matviyenko, a political associate, as a candidate for mayor. But suddenly, in April, Putin told her to withdraw, paving the way for victory this month by Vladimir Yakovlev, the incumbent under whom crime has flourished. One of Yakovlev's city assembly allies is in jail on suspicion of running a murder-for-hire ring. Another pair is under investigation for embezzlement. Yakovlev called the idea of St. Petersburg as Russia's crime capital "nonsense." In any event, given Putin's tough-guy self-image, his lack of action in promoting change in St. Petersburg is striking. There certainly are reasons enough for a crackdown. Nothing is hidden. The main characteristic of crime in St. Petersburg is brazenness. Consider the recent mayhem. In late April, Georgy Pozdyakov, a nightclub owner, was gunned down after working out at a fitness center. He was a friend of Pavel Kapysh, oil dealer and financier, blown up by rocket-propelled grenades last July while motoring on Vasilevsky Island, a St. Petersburg district. Oil has been a particularly bloody battleground as gangs fought over the right to play middlemen in supplying the city. The business is in the hands of the Tambov organized crime group, according to St. Petersburg newspapers. In the past three years, assassins have killed the head of a bank with oil holdings, a vice president of a Finnish company that owns gas stations in St. Petersburg and another bank executive with oil connections, according to police officials. This year's toll also includes a home appliance and car dealer, shot dead at his daughter's house; a sewing thread manufacturer, killed when he stopped his car at a traffic light; three lumber mill operators killed in their vehicles; and a beer factory director. Politicians are not immune. Last year, a city assemblyman was decapitated when a killer ran up to his stopped car and placed a bomb on the roof. He had been planning to testify about high-level corruption in city hall. In November 1998, a pair of assassins ambushed Galina Starovoitova, a respected member of parliament and human rights advocate, on her doorstep. The year before, a sniper killed the city government's privatization chief, Mikhail Manevich, who tried to rein in real estate giveaways. All these crimes remain unsolved, although one municipal legislator was arrested and accused of masterminding seven contract killings. In 1998, the cemetery business claimed a prominent civil servant: the deputy director of the city's Consumer Market Committee, Yevgeny Agaryov. The committee, which is in charge of regulating cemeteries, sets the official prices for burials. Agaryov was killed while drafting legislation to tighten controls. Ask Russian citizens about their burial experiences, and they tell depressingly similar tales. One woman who recently paid for the funeral of a destitute friend said she gave $1,200 up front. The charge was supposed to cover everything. But then, extra fees were levied: to prepare the body; to make sure the grave was dug on time; to make sure a proper coffin was available. "They know full well that people are most vulnerable at this time. No one complains," the woman said. "And if I went to the authorities, it would mean leaving the dead unburied while I argued . . . for what? And for how long? People just pay up." St. Petersburg newspapers say that an organized crime group called the Kazan gang, named for its origins in that provincial city, controls the cemeteries, which are nominally municipal property. The Kazan gang pushed out rivals 18 months ago. The man allegedly in charge of the funeral business is Vladimir Korolyov, a former city morgue employee who created his own "ritual services" company in the early 1990s. His nickname is Father Funeral. (Colorful nicknames are a St. Petersburg mob specialty; a previous kingpin in the cemetery business was called Kostya the Grave.) The city government has pledged repeatedly to reconquer the cemeteries. Last November, the municipal assembly passed a law forbidding the privatization of cemeteries, but it has had little effect. Konstantin Serov, a city legislator, acknowledged dryly that municipal cemeteries hang in a lawless limbo. "Of course, every process has its dark side," said Serov, a Yakovlev ally. "Lots of private interests, including criminals, want to own the cemeteries. But we won't allow it." Theoretically, the new law makes it permissible to fire cemetery administrators or workers who charge extra for services. Enforcement rests with the Consumer Market Committee. Over at that office, despite the need for a receptionist to wear a flak jacket, officials insist there is no problem. "Newspapers simply make up stories about cemeteries. Everything is under control. That's all," said Sergei Morgunov, an official in the funerals service division. A young gunman taking tea at the Astoria Hotel was more relaxed as he explained the basic origins of the recent shooting spree: "Some people need lessons about trying to operate independently." Aren't there other ways to send these messages? "In Russia," he said, "we say you need to study hard to get ahead
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