Caucasus Cities Called the Safest

MTPolice on patrol near Chistiye Prudy in central Moscow. The official crime rate in Moscow is higher than in Chechnya.
Looking to move to a peaceful, crime-free neighborhood? Try the North Caucasus republics of Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia.

These violence-plagued regions were rated among the most crime-free in the country by the Krasnoyarsk-based think tank Region, which has published a report analyzing Interior Ministry data from 2002 to 2007 to determine the safest Russian regions, cities and towns.

Ingushetia, which has seen a spike in deadly attacks in recent months, was rated the country's least criminal region, with just 39 crimes per 10,000 residents annually. The runners-up were Dagestan and Chechnya, with 52 and 55 crimes per 10,000 residents, respectively.

The Perm region, meanwhile, was the most criminal of the 82 provinces analyzed in the study, with an average of 382 registered offenses per 10,000 residents annually -- 1.8 times the national rate.

But you might want to wait before packing your belongings and heading for Nazran, Grozny or Makhachkala: The official statistics may reveal more about the ministry's inconsistent system for registering crimes than about the true safety of Russia's streets.

Corruption and varying registration practices across the country have long made establishing crime trends problematic in Russia. In October 2005, Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev described the state of affairs at police stations across the country as "catastrophic," with rank-and-file officers widely corrupted and detectives whitewashing statistics.

Police officers' practice of boosting crime-solving rates by manipulating statistics, a practice known in police jargon as "chopping sticks," is common nationwide.

Gross falsifications in crime registration do account for the low official crime rates in Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan, said Sergei Iliy, a senior researcher with the Interior Ministry's Scientific Research Institute.

But while it may seem counterintuitive to think of these republics -- which have been ravaged by wars, terrorism and organized crime over the past 15 years -- as safe, cultural specifics there do lead to less registered crimes, Iliy said.

"First, many people are Muslims there, and they do not drink as much as people in central Russia and Siberia do," Iliy said. "Second, the average criminal is a male between 20 and 30 years old, and many such men born in the Northern Caucasus have simply moved [to different regions]."

Furthermore, people in the North Caucasus often prefer to settle conflicts among themselves rather than turning to police, Iliy added.

Andrei Pokhmelkin, a researcher with the Independent Legal Council, said there is a "general mistrust" of law enforcement institutions in the North Caucasus and that "informal laws dating back to medieval traditions restrain people there."

Interior Ministry and independent criminologists interviewed for this report said it was not surprising, however, that the Perm region, an industrial province in the Ural Mountains, was rated the country's most crime-ridden.

Unemployment, poverty and social stratification in Perm are exacerbated by large number of ex-convicts from the region's 49 prisons, they said.

One-sixth of the region's 3 million adult residents have prison records, said Yulia Orlova, a criminologist with the Perm regional branch of the Interior Ministry.

"I know families in which three generations were registered offenders," Orlova said.

Every third inmate released from a Perm prison commits a crime before leaving the region, according to police statistics.

While crime is a serious problem in Perm, the region's high crime rate may be due in part to local bureaucratic practices, Orlova said.

"We once had a study on why bicycle theft and robbery is so high in Perm while in Moscow it is almost nonexistent," Orlova said. "Initially, we thought thieves in Perm place a higher value on bicycles because incomes are lower than in Moscow, where every family can afford to buy one."

As it turns out, Perm police register every stolen bicycle complaint, while Moscow police typically demand that victims present documents proving that they owned the bicycle before agreeing to register a crime, Orlova said.

"A receipt is just such a document, but who keeps a receipt?" Orlova said. "So many victims in Moscow just leave without filing a complaint."

Violent Crimes

While police can easily manipulate statistics related to nonviolent crimes such as theft or hooliganism, it is far more difficult conceal grave offenses, above all murders, Iliy said.

Danger Spots and Safe Havens
Registered crimes per 10,000 residents

in 2002 – 2007 (average) in Russian regions
 Registered crimes per 10,000 residents

in 2002 – 2006 (average) in Russian cities
1 Perm region381.521 Surgut

(Khanty-Mansiisk autonomous district)
2 Khabarovsk region362.052 Tyumen (Tyumen region)492.69
3 Kurgan region327.823 Perm (Perm region)480.47
4 Irkutsk region314.674 Syktyvkar (republic of Komi)461.87
5 Jewish autonomous region313.965 Berezniki (Perm region)455.52
75 Republic of North Ossetia -- Alania101.42152 Armavir (Krasnodar region)115.27
76 Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria97.47153 Yelets (Lipetsk region)114.59
77 Republic of Chechnya55.10154 Elektrostal (Moscow region)112.20
78 Republic of Dagestan52.43155 Novomoskovsk (Tula region)94.44
79 Republic of Ingushetia35.81156 Makhachkala (republic of Dagestan)87.31
Source: Region

Violent crime is especially prevalent in regions with large numbers of young people and high unemployment, such as the Tuva and Sakha republics and the Altai and Chita regions, said Valery Yefimov, head of research with Region.

"Crime against property is more widespread in wealthier regions with the high consumer activity," Yefimov said. "There is more money there."

The Tuva Republic in southern Siberia is the country's most murderous region, with 64.6 registered murders per 10,000 residents last year -- compared with the national average of 15.6, according to Interior Ministry statistics.

The runners-up were the remote regions of Chukotka, Sakhalin, Buryatia and Yamal-Nenets.

While Chukotka, Sakhalin and Yamal-Nenets have seen increased financial fortunes in recent years, the high murder incidence can in part be attributed to the predilection for alcoholism among the regions' native populations, which is higher than the general population, Iliy of the ministry's Scientific Research Institute said.

He compared the penchant for alcohol abuse among many of Russia's native population to that of Native Americans.

The geographical isolation of Tuva, which does not even have a railroad passing through it, contributes to unemployment and a sense of despair, which subsequently lead to violence stemming from alcohol and drug abuse, said Svetlana Ryazantseva, an Interior Ministry researcher originally from the republic.

"If you go there, you will see that all murders are committed over trivial reasons," Ryazantseva said.

Violent crime per capita in Moscow was one-half the national average of 6.8 recorded crimes per 10,000 residents from 2002 to 2006, according to ministry statistics.

Ingushetia had the lowest violent crime rate, 1.6 registered crimes per 10,000 residents.

With an overall average of 202 registered crimes per 10,000 residents in the same time period, Moscow rated slightly below the national average. St. Petersburg, with 183 crimes per 10,000 residents, was safer -- though still far more dangerous than the North Caucasus republics.

Moscow and St. Petersburg both have the legal status of regions.

Cities vs. Regions

While the Perm region is officially the most criminal Russian province, the most criminal city from 2002 to 2006 was the Siberian oil boomtown of Surgut.

With 493 crimes annually per 10,000 residents, Surgut's crime rate was almost double the national average of 263 registered crimes for cities, according to Region's analysis.

There is a clear trend showing increased crime rates in oil towns -- with a particular spike in thefts -- because of a large concentration of young male oil workers and relatively high incomes compared with other cities, said Valery Yefimov, head of research with Region.

With 87 crimes per 10,000 residents, the safest city in Russia was Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan. One would hardly believe it judging by Russian news agency reports from the city, which seemingly every week relay violent attacks on local businessmen and officials.

Notably, the study by Region showed that crime rates in Russian urban centers compare favorably to their U.S. counterparts.

Russia's most criminal cities from 2002 to 2006 -- Surgut, Perm and Tyumen -- had the same crime rate as Laredo, Texas, and Modesto, California, according to the report.

The most criminal U.S. city in that period, St. Louis, Missouri, had a crime rate twice as high as Perm, the report said. Russia's safest cities -- Makhachkala and Tula -- registered fewer crimes per capita than the safest U.S. cities, Thousand Oaks and Irvine, both in California.

That picture is likely to change beginning in November, however, when the Interior Ministry plans to hire a professional pollster to survey citizens' attitudes toward crime levels and police performance in its regional evaluations.

Since 1997, the ministry's annual evaluations of its regional branches has included opinions from 300 citizens.

"It quickly became clear that these evaluations are biased because policemen were often giving them to their acquaintances to be filled out," said Oleg Yakovlev, an expert with Interior Ministry's Scientific Research Institute who participated in working out a new system for registering crime and evaluating police performance.

The ministry held a tender earlier this year won by state pollster VTsIOM to collect 400 independent evaluations from citizens of each Russian region. The first results are due in November.

The surveys will include questions about crimes committed by police and whether residents fear police officers, Yakovlev said.

"Then we will compare the results with the official numbers," he added.