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What's Behind Russia's Crime Wave?

Russia is reeling from a series of assassinations. On Sept. 13, central banker Andrei Kozlov was shot dead outside a Moscow soccer stadium, becoming the highest-ranking government official to be murdered in many years. Just three weeks later, well-known journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered outside her apartment in another apparent contract killing. Recent weeks have also seen several murders of businesspeople, including a Moscow bank manager and the property manager for the Itar-Tass news agency.

Although there is no apparent link between the killings, Russians are beginning to ask if the coincidence is somehow significant. Perhaps, after the relative calm of recent years, violence is returning to Russia's business and political life.

What's clear is that the recent spate of high-profile murders has put the spotlight once again on Russia's reputation for criminality. But are the killings part of a more general trend? And is Russia's poor reputation justified? BusinessWeek's Moscow correspondent Jason Bush weighs the evidence.

Are contract killings in Russia still common? Are they on the rise?

Although less common than in the past, contract killings have remained a serious problem. Around five are recorded by the police each month. These figures undoubtedly understate the true picture.

At the same time, the official figures show steadily declining numbers of contract murders. Last year, according to Russia's Internal Affairs Ministry, the police recorded 62 contract murders, compared with 92 in 2004, 97 in 2003, and 142 in 2002. Although the true figures may be much higher, most observers agree that the problem has declined significantly since the 1990s, when several hundred killings were recorded each year.

This downward trend now seems to be flattening out. The figure for the first nine months of this year, 49, is slightly more than the 47 contract killings recorded during the same period last year. A spate of recent killings has led to worries that violent methods may now be making a comeback. But it's too early to say whether recent assassinations signify any kind of trend.

Is there any reason contract killings might become more common now?

It's a question many have begun to ask after recent assassinations, though convincing theories are still hard to come by. Some argue that, as more businessmen and officials say no to corrupt methods, they make themselves vulnerable to violence. Central banker Kozlov was widely admired for his incorruptibility.

Others see a link between rising violence and a forthcoming struggle for political power in 2008, the year that President Vladimir Putin is due to step down. The last transfer of power, in 2000, was also preceded by violence, including terrorist attacks that many suspected were linked to the struggle for power.

Commenting on the murder of Politkovskaya, Putin hinted that his political enemies might be to blame, in order to harm him and Russia's international image. For the time being, though, such conspiracy theories are extremely speculative.

In general, how does Russia's crime rate compare with other countries?

Russia's official crime rate is actually significantly lower than in developed countries. Around 3.5 million crimes were recorded in Russia last year, compared with 5.5 million in Britain and 23 million in the U.S., according to official government figures. But this almost certainly reflects less recording of crime; recording is more common in high-income countries where there is more incentive to report criminal activity. In Russia, public confidence in the police and law courts is notoriously low.

When it comes to violent crime, which is harder to conceal, the situation is much worse in Russia than in most other countries. Russia's murder rate—22 per 100,000 a year—is one of the highest in the world, comparable to Brazil and four times higher than in the U.S., according to the U.N. and the FBI.

Why is Russia so violent?

Relatively high rates of violent crime are common in mid-income countries such as Russia, Brazil, and Mexico, where rapid economic change coexists with poverty, inequality, and social problems.

It's clear that the major social and economic changes of the last two decades have had a major impact on Russian crime rates, including violent crimes. The crime rate doubled between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s, when Russia was in the throes of its transition from the Soviet system to a market economy. Criminologists believe that the social problems associated with the transition, such as rising alcoholism and drug addiction, and strains on family life caused by economic difficulties, explain the sharp increase in violent crimes.

The 1990s also saw the emergence of business-related violence and organized crime. But these represent a relatively small share of all violence in Russia, which is mainly the result of domestic disputes. In a country long known for its love of hard liquor, alcohol abuse is a major factor, contributing to around two-thirds of all Russia's murders. When former President Gorbachev briefly restricted alcohol sales in the late 1980s, the rate of violent crime fell dramatically.

How safe is Moscow?

With around 15 homicides per 100,000 a year, Moscow is the murder capital of Europe, with more than twice as many murders per capita as New York. But despite the high murder rate, street crime is comparatively rare. And Moscow actually compares favorably with many big American cities: According to the FBI, the murder rate in Washington, D.C., is more than twice as high.

How safe are foreigners?

Racially motivated attacks are a growing problem. The usual targets are citizens from other former Soviet republics, though visitors from Africa and Asia have also been victims. Recent incidents have included the bombing of a market mainly used by Central Asian migrants in Moscow in August, and the shooting of a Senegalese student in St. Petersburg in April. Police statistics confirm that crimes against foreign citizens are rising sharply.

Is overall crime on the increase?

Yes, according to police statistics from the Internal Affairs Ministry. After the twofold increase during the late '80s and early '90s, Russia's crime rate stabilized in the mid-'90s, but over the last three years it has begun to shoot up again. Last year, for example, the number of recorded crimes in Russia rose by 22.8%, and the increase is continuing this year.

A closer look shows that while more crimes are being committed, violent crimes such as murder and assault have stabilized and are now decreasing. The number of murders in Russia has fallen for the last three years, and was down by 10% in the first nine months of this year compared with the same period last year.

Instead, the recent surge in crime is entirely the result of crimes against property such as theft, burglary, and robbery. Last year, the Russian police recorded 1.57 million thefts (a rise of 23%) and 344,440 robberies (a rise of 37%).

Why is crime rising?

If the Russian crime wave of the late '80s and early '90s coincided with economic recession, then the latest rise is taking place against a background of strong economic growth. That may well provide a clue as to why the crime rate is shooting up again. As ever more Russians acquire expensive modern gadgets such as cars, laptops, and mobile phones, there is no doubt a lot more around to steal, and more incentive to report crimes.

Criminologists say that a trend toward less violent crime and more property crime, together with an overall increase in the crime rate, is normal as a country's level of income rises. In that sense, crime in Russia may be beginning to resemble crime in the developed world.

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