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Moscow’s Showy Crime Crackdown So Far Scratches the Surface

August 5, 1996

MOSCOW (AP) _ Police are raiding casinos, clearing out the homeless and clamping down on market vendors in a sweeping summer campaign aimed at cleansing Moscow of its lawless image.

From the president’s new security chief down to the mayor of Moscow, leaders are preaching a get-tough gospel prompted by the hard-line rhetoric of the recent presidential election campaign and spurred by subway and trolleybus bombings.

But critics complain that these efforts _ many of which Moscow has tried before to little avail _ are misdirected, catching a few small-fry criminals while leaving bigger fish unscathed.

Mostly, the crackdown is serving as a public relations tool for the capital’s popular mayor, Yuri Luzhkov.

``It’s just what the people want to hear,″ said Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst with the independent Moscow Carnegie Institute.

In a city where crime competes with the economy as residents’ No. 1 concern, the feisty mayor is striking a chord with his rhetoric on morality and the campaign against elements many people view as shady.

Luzhkov declared July 12 that the city should shut down all but five casinos _ city authorities say many gambling spots operate without proper licenses and are frequented by ``criminal elements.″

Moscow’s 72 casinos and 577 other gambling facilities are not pleased.

``He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It will ruin the business atmosphere,″ said a manager at Moscow’s Fair Play casino, who did not want his name used for fear of angering authorities.

He insisted his casino’s relations with city hall had been good, but added that his vast, dimly lit club lined with roulette tables and long-legged ``hostesses″ has hired extra security guards since Luzhkov’s declaration.

Petrov, the political analyst, considers the crackdown an attempt to weed out competition for Luzhkov’s powerful friends.

``These (big casino owners) are doing well and are interested in consolidating their position,″ he said. ``They are demanding that Luzhkov do this.″

Other people say it is aimed at scaring independent-minded casinos into paying off officials in city hall.

So far, a few high-profile raids have targeted small-scale casinos in distant corners of the city.

The anti-crime push also has hit Russia’s millions of ``shuttle traders″ who regularly travel abroad to bring back cheap goods to sell in markets _ thereby avoiding taxes.

Luzhkov pushed through new rules limiting the amount of goods they can bring in tariff-free and vowed to crack down on tax evasion.

``We are small change,″ complained Irina Kryukova, who sells leather jackets from Turkey near Moscow’s Kievsky train station. ``Why doesn’t he do anything with the real criminals, the bankers?″

Past crackdowns on crime in Moscow have been widely popular but have been condemned by human rights groups because police target Russia’s darker-skinned minorities from the Caucasus Mountains.

This time has been no different. Luzhkov indicated after the two trolleybus bombings that the crackdown on ``unwelcome elements″ would focus on residents of the Caucasus. The ``Caucasians″ often are blamed by Russians for the rampant crime in the capital and other large cities.

A man obsessed with the esthetics of his city, Luzhkov also is going after the homeless. He promised to sweep them from the streets and create a homeless shelter on the city’s outskirts.

But while many of homeless often commit minor crimes, they form only a small part of the country’s vast underworld.

Luzhkov’s critics accuse his administration of links to organized crime. Some say an honest stab at corruption might strike too close to home.

The same is said of the Kremlin, where the anti-corruption platform of Alexander Lebed, President Boris Yeltsin’s new national security chief, seems to have become muted.

A tough-talking former general, Lebed won widespread support as a presidential candidate for criticizing crime and corruption at the highest levels _ before he entered Yeltsin’s circle himself.

Despite the mayor’s widespread popularity among Muscovites for sprucing up the fading capital and championing extensive church reconstruction, Luzhkov has tread on some potentially volatile ground with one part of his crackdown _ a decree to create vodka-free zones by Sept. 1.

He declared Russia’s favorite drink could no longer be sold near schools, child-care centers, health clinics or churches.

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