Monday, February 25, 2008

MOSCOW (London Daily Telegraph) — A surge in contract killings reminiscent of Russia’s vicious crime wars of the 1990s is threatening to damage Vladimir Putin’s legacy of stability.

The Russian president has replaced the lawlessness experienced in the era of Boris Yeltsin, his predecessor, with what he likes to call “the dictatorship of the law.”

However, as he prepares to hand over power after the election to Dmitry Medvedev, his hand-picked successor, the number of killings linked to crime syndicates is again on the rise.

In the past week, the Saratov regional prosecutor, a leading Moscow lawyer and a director of Avtovaz, Russia’s biggest car maker, have been killed.

The death of a general in charge of defense ministry contracts is also suspicious.

“A wave of contract killings has hit the country,” conceded Yuri Chaika, the country’s prosecutor general.

Despite the increase in deaths — many of which have been linked to a power struggle between Kremlin factions — the violence pales in comparison to the anarchy of the mid-1990s when thousands were killed in turf wars between rival gangs.

Reminders of that astonishing period of attrition are found in every cemetery from Moscow to Vladivostok.

Perhaps the most ghoulish can be found in two graveyards on opposite sides of Yekaterinburg — one the final resting place for members of the Central Gang; the other for their rivals in the Uralmash Gang, named after one of the city’s toughest suburbs.

Larger-than-life photographs etched onto the granite tombstones depict hardened men in Hawaiian shirts and leather jackets.

Beside the grave of a Uralmash leader who died in prison two years ago, two men in dark glasses keep watch over their former master’s resting place from a battered white Renault.

A camera perched on the top of the grave swivels in the direction of approaching strangers — a warning, it is said, not to pilfer the gold that lies within.

But most of the young fighters who once made up the brawn of the gangs, kneecapping those who would not pay protection money and planting explosives under the cars of rivals, have moved on to lives of semi-respectability.

Few miss the days when, they said, the only way to survive was to work for the mafia. Most credit Mr. Putin for ending the violence by giving the police new powers and ordering the arrest of many gang leaders.

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