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COLUMN ONE

Russia's Harvest of Have-Nots

Nation's bureaucrats and social institutions fail to prepare youths for society. Instead, they foster the growth of an angry and alienated underclass that turns to crime and violence for its survival.

September 22, 1998|VANORA BENNETT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even organized-crime bosses find random violence distasteful, he says.

"These people are as much of an irritant to the intelligentsia of the crime world as to the forces of law and order. There are even stories about organized-crime bosses ordering cleanups of towns to get rid of them. The down-and-outs of crime are hated by everyone."

But the blame for the behavior of Russia's lowlifes should fall primarily on the crooked bureaucrats who monitor treatment, activists and social workers say. They give horrifying details of how these bureaucrats distort--and perpetuate--the system for their own financial advantage.

In Moscow, for instance, the city's Education Department pays lip service to the aim of taking children out of state homes and putting them in foster families. This is more humane because it gives children a chance for a normal family life. And it's also cheaper: It costs the state $350 a month to keep a child in a home, while foster families get only half that to take in an orphaned child.

But Altshuler says some bureaucrats have done all they can to make this effort fail--because they get a cut of the money that goes through state orphanages. They get no share of foster-care money.

"There are murky indications everywhere that the chinovniki don't want to cut their own income by fulfilling government orders," he says.

"The bureaucrats don't care about what's more humane. They're happy dividing up the state pie between themselves, and it would be a financial catastrophe for them to lose the money," Altshuler says. "So there are big, and undeclared, financial-corporate interests inside the education and health departments that understand very well that they have nothing to gain from reform."

Making Money Off Inefficiency

The same goes for the army, according to Melnikova of the mothers committee. Despite repeated promises to reform and scale back a mass conscript army that has outlived its usefulness, nothing is actually done--because too many people make a good living out of its inefficiency at the expense of the soldiers at the bottom.

"It's only bribery and corruption that move things along in the army," she charges. "When an officer realizes that his promotion depends on how much he pays to get to an acceptable garrison, he loses his idealism and his interest in work. And he starts treating his men like so many bodies to be robbed.

"Funds and supplies come down the line. People pilfer at every stage, and there's nothing left to feed the soldiers at the bottom with. They're left to starve. It's secret privatization or, more honestly, theft. If the army can't feed its soldiers, it should just send them home."

But she despairs at the prospects for change. "No one at the top really wants to do anything about reform because the army is a big source of corruption," she says. "It has millions of men. It needs huge sums of money lavished on it. Reform is only possible when there's a will."

The best way to reform the system is to limit the power of the chinovniki, Altshuler suggests, by creating Western-style independent inspectorates, ombudsmen and watchdog bodies. None of these ideas has yet gotten off the ground, however; the bureaucrats shoot them down as impractical or damaging to national security.

But Abramkin says he believes that the political uncertainty of today's Russia means that the vicious circle could be broken soon. There are less than two years to go before presidential elections. President Boris N. Yeltsin is increasingly capricious. So bureaucrats are running scared.

Among changes suddenly in the works is the planned transfer of Russian prisons from the military Interior Ministry to the civilian Justice Ministry.

"Now's our chance," Abramkin says. "The entrenched authorities are feeling uncertain and ready for dialogue. There are always changes for the better when chinovniki, and their Communist friends, are running scared."

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About This Series

In this four-part series, The Times examines Russia's post-Soviet convalescence.

* Sunday: It is becoming clearer by the day that epidemic corruption is not a fleeting ailment. More and more, it is looking like an enduring framework for doing business.

* Monday: Theft has emerged as an integral part of Russia's "privatization" of property once owned by the state. For millions of Russians, stealing is a normal part of life.

* Today: Meet Volodya. He killed a man when he was 10. He belongs to Russia's young and angry underclass, with no way of surviving except through crime and violence.

* Wednesday: Western countries that once worried about the Soviets' military might are now trying to combat an invasion by the brutal and disciplined Russian mafia.

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