Cosa Nostra Cosa 'Nasha'

The pumping of millions of illegal dollars out of unstable Russia and into solid Western banks, the export and import of contraband goods and much besides has strengthened the hand of organized crime in what was once the most closed country in the world.

If in central and northern Europe, efforts are being made to counter the Russian invasion and, thanks to Interpol, succeeding in part, in the south, in Italy, the Russian mafia has found a welcome haven and open arms.

In the Apennines, the field is wide open for Russian mafiosi. Although Italy's legal organs have dealt some serious blows to Cosa Nostra, southern Italy remains under mafia control.

Top Italian crime bosses journeyed to St. Petersburg last year for a celebrated meeting with their Russian counterparts. The gathering was kept under tight wraps though someone did tip off the Russian intelligence service. Still, efforts to round up the conferees failed: Mafiosi have long since ceased to resemble shaggy ex-cons; these "respectable" Italian businessmen blended right into the crowd.

In what spheres are the Italian and Russian mafias collaborating?

First there is the laundering of the huge sums of ill-gotten money coming into Russia from Western banks. For the Italian mafia this is a virtually risk-free venture since the Russian underworld, the Interior Ministry confirms, controls up to 80 percent of Russia's banks. With the help of forged contracts, money from different banks in Europe is funnelled into Russia, usually in connection with ostensible commercial deals or consulting services. Here the money acquires a legitimate basis and is transferred to the Apennines according to new official contracts with Italian firms. After several large transactions, the intermediary banks can be dissolved, and the remaining money redeposited in other local banks.

Narcotics, the sine qua non of any world crime business, are another promising Russian-Italian venture. The prices of opium and cocaine in the East as compared to the West are negligible. Central Asia and the countries of the Golden Crescent (Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan) supply cheap and reliable stuff that goes up in price the further from the source you sell it.

For example, one kilogram of opium on the Tajik-Afghan border goes for $200; in the Kyrgyz city of Osh, the cost is $1,000; by the time it gets to Moscow, it sells for $8,000.

For every kilo of opium, you get 100 grams of pure heroin. In Russia there are several laboratories capable of doing the job. The cost of one kilo of heroin in Moscow is in the neighborhood of $40,000. But in Italy, the cost is off the graph, in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Russians were allowed into the Italian market not because of their beautiful eyes, but in return for certain services. The main thing is that they not knock down prices on European markets, otherwise the Italian mafia may impose sanctions.

In exchange, Russia receives high-priced cocaine from the Italians straight from Columbia.

If one gram of cocaine costs between $50 and $80 in Europe, then at the discotheques and bars in Moscow, New Russians will shell out $150.

Meanwhile, Russians have sharply increased the prices for their prostitutes and now our girls are some of the most expensive in Italian night clubs. And they are world-class.

The arms trade is another sizeable money-maker. Italian mafiosi have proposed themselves as the middlemen to spirit Russian weapons to Moslem countries.

In recent years, the Italians were very upset when the Russians lowered prices on stolen and used cars brought into Russia from abroad. As a result, stolen cars from Germany and elsewhere in Europe were cheaper in Russia than the stolen cars coming from the Apennines. "Consultations" solved the problem and now the prices for hot cars in Moscow and St. Petersburg are substantially higher than they were a year ago.

One thing Italian and Russian mafiosi cannot agree on is lifestyle: Cosa Nostra and their ilk are discreet, whereas our gangsters love to flaunt their wealth.

In Italy with a delegation of Russian journalists, I had occasion to meet with entrepreneurs. One of them told me about a Russian millionaire who had bought himself a yacht for $25 million. An Italian with no official status and no legitimate financial base wouldn't dare indulge himself that way.

"Your people are fearless," the entrepreneur remarked.

At this point, the first stage of criminal collaboration is drawing to a close. Many Russian mafiosi have acquired millions of dollars and are investing this money in Italian industry and tourism.

Last year's arrest of Monya Elson -- Russia's second most powerful mafia boss after Vyacheslav Ivankov, better known as Yaponchik -- was a sensation in the Italian press.

Elson settled in on the east coast of the Apennines, stashed millions of dollars in national banks, and plunged into the wood, gold and silver industries. The investigation has turned up information showing that Elson's "brigade" was in contact with many local manufacturers.

These days Elson is sitting in a cell in Ascolo-Picheno and not talking. Investigators have been trying to get testimony out of him for 10 months, to no avail. Evidently, the Italian oath of silence acts magically on Russian mafiosi too.

While the Italian justice system has the experience and mechanisms to expose crime rings, Russia has no strict legislation providing for audits of financial institutions and underground concerns. Instead of tackling its own multiplying mafiosi, Russia is taken up with more "global" tasks, such as the war in Chechnya

Mumin Shakirov is a correspondent for Literaturnaya Gazeta. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.