Russia's Love of Guns

At a recent news conference, General Major Nikolai Pershutkin, head of the Interior Ministry's chief directorate for social order, announced the shocking results of a recent federal operation directed at security organizations and private investigators.

As a result of the operation, code-named Shchit, which means Shield, nearly 22,000 individuals have been brought up on charges for about 2,500 violations of Statute 222 of the Russian Criminal Code, which addresses the illegal acquisition, transfer, sale, storage and carrying of arms and munitions. In addition, illegal use of funds for industrial and financial espionage has increased among security organizations and private investigators.

Listing the figures for legal and illegal arms trade in the country, Pershutkin noted that Russians are armed to the teeth. According to the general's figures, 150,000 firearms are floating around the illegal market and that number continues to grow. In some Russian regions, control over arm s possession is becoming more and more difficult. In the northern Caucasus, for example, weaponry has become a household item for Moslem families -- not to mention that Chechnya and Dagestan now lead the country's illegal firearms market.

In Moscow alone about 70,000 people working for more than 3,000 officially registered security organizations are legally allowed to bear arms. This does not include the Interior Ministry's indepedent security service, or VOKhR, which offers the very same security services that private agencies offer. That makes about 100,000 more security personnel. Legal firearms trade in Russia is itself a major issue.

"Gas pistol sales have declined dramatically," Pershutkin said at the news conference. "Simultaneously, demand has increased for hunting knives and all manner of sidearms. Today, legal arms traders are experiencing a large sales boom and can offer consumers all matter of domestic and foreign products, from the Russian Makarov handgun to the German Walther.

But keeping track of security agencies has become a headache for law enforcement organizations. While conducting Shchit, specialists from the Interior Ministry and the Federal Tax Service discovered a large number of so-called illegal security agencies. In all, Shchit discovered 547 businesses as well as 2,500 individuals all conducting unlicensed security and private investigation services.

Establishing a secret security or guard service is very simple. The head of a business will hire individuals licensed to carry weapons, but not register their subordinates as guards with law-enforcement or tax authorities. These armed security personnel walk about freely at private businesses. Services from such guards are less expensive than those offered by legally registered security agencies.

Interior Ministry figures suggest that there are a large number of these services. This is just the kind of niche that criminals flourish in. Most often, criminal businesses use this front to establish their businesses and hide them from competitors and taxes.

On the other hand, the war between private security services and the VOKhR is at its peak. VOKhR detachments are working closely with each other and doing everything they can to squeeze out the competition and expose the illegals.

But most private firms and businesses prefer to work with independent security services and private investigators, as leaks and contact with official law-enforcement organizations are hardly beneficial for them. However, VOKhR personnel are much better equipped than any security agency. Not only do they have pistols, they are armed with Kalashnikov automatic rifles loaded with all the accessories that private agencies are prohibited from utilizing.

Needless to say, those running these private agencies are less than happy with the situation. Few of them desire a criminal presence in their businesses as this would cause severe damage to those firms that enjoy good reputations. In fact, larger security agencies are less interested in protecting their own rights legislatively than they are in legislation to limit the rights of those illegals that openly conduct criminal activities under the guise of security agencies. Weapons collectors have also become a cause for concern. Over the past few years, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of amateur weapons collectors who cover their apartment walls with little arsenals. Law-enforcement agencies are determined to have rigid limitations placed on this category of collector, even complete bans.

The Interior Ministry is planning to turn over the results of operation Shchit to a working group of the State Duma's Security Committee for use in drafting a bill titled On Amendments to the Russian Federation Law On the Activities of Private Detectives and Private Security in the Russian Federation. They want lawmakers to amend the law to ban illegal security structures from Russian enterprises and private firms.

What is behind the dramatic increase in amateur arms collectors in Russia?

Undoubtedly, the first factor is a fear of the criminals who are present at nearly every level of Russia's economy, especially where there is big money. Secondly, in a number of Russia's regions, street crime is so prevalent that local residents are continually forced to think about their personal safety. Thirdly, there is no faith in the police's abilities to cope with the growing crime problem. And finally, the scariest problem is the military hot spots in southern Russia, from which arms are pouring into the rest of the country with astounding force. It is no secret that nearly all of the Russian Caucasus, including Chechnya and Dagestan is militarized. Amongst the worst offenders are the Cossacks, an entire well-armed society secretly preparing for war with southern Moslem neighbors.

The illegal arms trade has become as widespread as other forms of illegal business, such as the trade in drugs or black caviar. The title of Ernest Hemingway's novel "A Farewell to Arms" does not apply to Russia today. Comrade Makarov has become a Russian's best friend.

Mumin Shakirov is a staff writer for Radio Liberty, Moscow. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.