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Monday, June 30, 2008

Crime out of Control in Putin's Russia

Paul Goble reports:

Violent crime in Russia continues to rise 13 percent a year and now may even exceed the levels of the 1990s, a trend that is hitting that country’s mid-sized cities hard and one that calls into question Vladimir Putin’s largely successful effort to present himself at home and abroad as the man who brought law and order to the Russian Federation. That is the depressing conclusion of the cover story in the current issue of “Russian Newsweek,” a story that its analysts had to piece together given Moscow’s increasing unwillingness since 2002 to release accurate information about crime in general and by urban area in particular.

The magazine’s researchers focused on the 156 cities in Russia with populations of more than 100,000 each and identified the 50 “most dangerous” cities in that country in terms of the rate of crime per capita, places where in most cases few Westerners live but in which large numbers of Russian citizens are forced to try to survive. In per capita terms, the ten most dangerous cities in terms of crime were Surgut, Perm, Syktyvkar, Berezniki, Khabarovsk, Chita, Yakutsk, Irkutsk, and Abakan, all of which had crime rates exceeding 395 crimes annually per 10,000, a figure that means one in every 25 residents was touched by crime during the last 12 months. (Although the capitals, Moscow and St. Petersburg, have the largest number of crimes because of their size, the two rank relatively low in terms of the number of crimes per capita, with Moscow where there were 198 crimes per 10,000 residents last year only in 111th place among Russian cities and St. Petersburg where there were 176 crimes per 10,000 people 122nd.)

In addition to these global figures, the “Russian Newsweek” analysts after a multi-month investigation came up with rates per capita for the same set of cities concerning especially violent ones like murders, rapes and attempted rapes, and narcotics crimes. The leaders in the murder category for the period 2002-2006 were Kyzyl with 9.32 murders per 10,000 residents, Chita with 7.91, and Yakutsk with 7.31. The leaders in the rapes and attempted rapes category were Kyzyl with 5.55 per 10,000, Gorno-Altaysk with 2.51, and Chita with 2.02. The leaders in the narcotics category were Birobidzhan with 46.51 such crimes for every 10,000 residents, Surgut with 37.98 and Tyumen with 37.95. Other cities trailed far behind in terms of the rate of crime, including again Moscow and St. Petersburg and those places where foreigners are most likely to live.

As every student of crime knows, statistics about this aspect of human activity are notoriously unreliable. On the one hand, many crimes are never reported to the authorities either because the victims do not expect justice or because they do not want to have to deal with the authorities or to call attention to themselves But on the other, officials sometimes have an interest in boosting the number of crimes they have to deal with in order to justify higher budgets and sometimes have equal but opposite interest in suppressing the number of crimes reported in order to demonstrate their success in maintaining law and order.

Over the last 15 years, all these factors have played a role in Russia, the Moscow weekly points out. In 2001, for example, the interior minister demanded that militiamen who refused to register crimes be fired. As a result the number of crimes in Russia jumped from five million in that year to 13 million the next, a figure that many experts say still understated crime there.
But during the later Putin years, the Kremlin sought to present itself as a victor in the fight against crime, and the authorities suppressed information and probably understated the number of crimes they did report lest people discover that “the wild 1990s” had been succeeded by the equally “wild 2000s."

In the opinion of Moscow criminologist Boris Kalachev, the reason for Russia’s high rates of crime is the ratio between rich and poor. When the number of poor is more than four times the number of rich people, he argues, crime goes up. In most of Western Europe, this ratio is five to one. In Italy and Spain, it is seven to one, and there the crime situation is worse. But in Russia, he notes, this critical ratio is far higher. In the mid-1990s, it may have been as high as 100 to one and even if one accepts the official figure of 12 to one which most experts think is far too low, the ratio now is 12 poor people to every rich one, a pattern that generates crime, according to Kalachev. Reducing this ratio should be a major state goal, he says, but doing so won’t be easy, given the high level of inflation the country is experiencing. At present, he says, there is a curious coincidence that may say far more about the future than anyone cares to think: Both crime and inflation are rising at almost exactly the same rate – 13 percent.

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