Russian votes may turn on public's view of crime


MOSCOW -- A long-simmering public anger over the burgeoning power and brazen ruthlessness of organized crime here has suddenly erupted into the middle of Russia's fractious parliamentary election campaign.

People's cynicism about the government's ability to do anything to rein in the criminal mobs has been jolted by a series of virtually public slayings of bankers and businessmen.

Opposition politicians are now scoring points off the democratic reformers who had seemed to hold the edge going into Sunday's election. Allegations of corruption and negligence are getting wide attention.

Yesterday, Yegor T. Gaidar, head of the Russia's Choice bloc of reformers, vowed in St. Petersburg that the government would restore order in Russia -- but he suggested that bankers and other financial services executives be given the right to carry guns to protect themselves.

Throughout Russia yesterday, virtually every commercial bank shut down to protest a recent and particularly spectacular slaying -- that of Nikolai Likhachev, chairman of the Russian Agrarian Bank.

Mr. Likhachev was killed outside his apartment Thursday and buried yesterday.

His was not the most recent such killing, though. On Monday, according to the Itar-Tass news agency, two gunmen in a BMW pulled up alongside a businessman's car in Moscow and opened fire, killing two people and seriously wounding one. The gunmen made off with a briefcase reportedly containing $250,000 in cash.

The bankers association has accused the police of not pursuing crimes against businesses and has charged that the government only pays lip service to the idea of estab

lishing control over organized crime.

Another accusation came yesterday from Izvestia, which published an article saying that corruption must reach high into the government, considering how easy it is to buy drugs on Moscow street corners.

And now the Democratic Party of Russia, an opposition group that has been emphasizing the need to crack down on organized crime, has begun to air portions of a documentary film that purports to offer images of financial law-breaking.

The DPR, led by Nikolai Travkin, had not made much headway until excerpts from the film began appearing during the party's television spots. It shows what are apparently smugglers' trucks crossing fully laden into China, and it shows how much better life seems to be on the Chinese side of the border.

The film is called "The Great Criminal Revolution," a sardonic takeoff on the Great October Revolution, as Communists used to call their seizure of power in 1917. It was made by Stanislaus Govorukhin, a filmmaker whose previous documentaries have been tinged by a sort of wistful nationalism and a less poetic anti-Semitism.

The ads, which are more mainline, seem to have struck a chord among many Russians.

But it is hard to predict how that may play out in the voting Sunday. Polling has been forbidden here for the last week, although earlier surveys have found that crime is the second-biggest concern of Russians, after inflation.

Crime seemed to be the big topic of conversation yesterday -- yet there is a profound reluctance to trust politicians who make any promises about improving life here.

A young Communist candidate in Izhevsk, for instance, Nikolai Saporzhnikov, could not hide his disdain when he saw one of Mr. Travkin's appearances on television recently. Talking about crime is fine, Mr. Saporzhnikov said, but realistically, what can he do about it?

"There's a tradition of crime here," he said.

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