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COLUMN ONE : Murder for Hire in Moscow : A wave of contract killings has Russians on edge. Businessmen are the prime targets of brazen hit men, who style themselves after American gangsters.

August 13, 1993|SONNI EFRON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Thugs had been demanding protection money from the businessman for some time. Then one recent day, his wife opened the door of their apartment and a bomb went off. She bled to death in front of their two small children.

At Russia's fortress-like police headquarters, Officer Vladimir A. Petukhov, the harried and dour veteran lawman in charge of investigating contract killings, estimated that 100 to 150 businessmen have been murdered this year by extortionists, gangsters and free-lance hit men. As for the gangland-style bombing at the home of the manager of a Russian-Swiss venture, it raised no eyebrows.

"I wish I could tell you something," Petukhov said. "But, unfortunately, we have so many of such cases these days, I just don't remember it."

Moscow has become a lawless place, where former KGB agents hire themselves out as bodyguards to jittery Western business executives and where machine-gun slayings are a near-daily event. Muscovites compare their staid, gray city to Al Capone's Chicago--with onion domes.

But to Russians, no new crime is more exotic, more thrillingly American, more chilling than murder for hire. Contract killing, especially of businessmen, has become emblematic of the broader breakdown of authority and the evolution of a market-driven economic free-for-all.

Capitalism thrives in the death-for-dollars racket. Some of the killers have been hired by business rivals to eliminate the competition.

The price for snuffing out a life ranges from a bottle of vodka--if the deal is among friends--up to several thousand dollars for a prominent or well-defended target, Petukhov said. The killings have terrified the entrepreneurs who are supposed to be investing in Russia's new economy but who now must also invest in bodyguards and security systems. Though no foreign businessmen have been assassinated, there are growing concerns that the tide of crime may discourage their interest in Russian projects.

Five senior Russian bankers recently wrote an open letter to President Boris N. Yeltsin pleading for protection against a wave of intimidation and murder by mobsters.

Gangsters have commissioned the killings of at least 10 bankers in St. Petersburg, Moscow and Ekaterinburg (an emerging Urals business center that was formerly known as Sverdlovsk) in an attempt to gain control over large commercial banks, according to the letter, signed by the president of the Russian Banking Assn. and four others and published in the Trud newspaper.

"This terror campaign is an attempt by the criminal world to control the developing commercial structures in Russia," said Konstantin N. Borovoi, another leading businessman and chairman of the new, pro-business Economic Freedom Party. "The state can do nothing to protect private enterprise from an all-out attack by the Mafia. All this paralyzes the will and initiative of many businessmen. It is especially damaging at this stage when private business is not yet on firm footing."

Crime of all kinds began skyrocketing across the former Soviet Union as soon as Big Brother stopped watching. Russia's murder rate has almost tripled since perestroika began and stood at 19.9 per 100,000 residents in the first six months of this year--double the American rate but about a third lower than in Los Angeles.

As in Southern California, gangs are blamed for much of the crime wave. Police say Russia has almost 3,300 organized crime groups, some armed with Kalashnikov submachine guns, hand grenades and other leftovers from the splintered Soviet army.

The new Mafiosi are easy to spot in Moscow's pricier restaurants. They shamelessly ape every cliche of the Hollywood gangster movie. They favor Italianate zoot suits and bottle-blondes in Lycra. They sneer through clouds of cigarette smoke and speak an incomprehensible slang.

Their violent conduct is even more jarring: In one bloody week in July, they staged gangland shootouts in Moscow that killed eight people and wounded six more.

Four people were killed when seven men from Chechnya--the southern republic that is gaining a reputation as the Sicily of Russia--drove up to a Russian-Italian auto dealership on Leninsky Prospekt and started shooting in apparent retaliation for the business's failure to pay protection money. A police spokeswoman said that security guards inside the dealership returned fire; an Alfa Romeo also was riddled with bullets.

Until glasnost , Soviet police could and did arrest hooligans--and dissidents--for tuneyastvo , or failure to work, a crime usually punished by a year at hard labor. Now, beleaguered authorities are overrun by brazen narcotics traffickers, kidnapers, bombers, counterfeiters and even train robbers--and arrest and conviction rates are dropping. (Expressing concern about the possibilities of the Russian crime wave becoming an export, American and German law enforcement officials this week offered their aid and know-how to their counterparts in Moscow.)

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