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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kidnapping Takes Hold in Ukraine

KIEV - Walking down Kreshchatyk, Kiev's central thoroughfare, at 10 P. M. , "Anna", 19, a part-time student at the city's French Institute, fell victim to one Ukraine's few growth industries: kidnapping.

In front of dozens of people she was bundled into a white Zhiguli car and whisked to a secret location where her kidnapper proceeded to demand the equivalent of five years average wages for her release.

"He wanted money", said Anna, who asked that her real name not be used. "First, 100, 000 coupons, then 300, 000. After that he settled for $500".

In many of the former Soviet Union's urban centers, freelance criminals and organized crime gangs are beginning to use kidnapping as a simple means of making money, according to Colonel Valery Kur, a lecturer at Kiev's police academy and a former head of Kiev's organized crime squad.

The targets increasingly are the Ukrainian or Russian nouveau riche, and sometimes their wives or children.

Anna was lucky: Her abductor and his sidekick were gopniki, St. Petersburg slang for petty gangsters who have no organization behind them. The word comes from a racketeer's song. The gopniki make money by taking hostages when they can.

Though her parents are rich - Anna's father is "in trade", a term that can itself denote a colorful variety of occupations - she managed to persuade her abductor that she and her family were poor.

The kidnapper's sidekick, a teenage

girl no older than Anna, contacted the family to ascertain how much they could afford to pay to get her back.

"I wasn't afraid of what would happen after I left. He had my telephone number but he had no organization behind him", Anna said.

After 24 hours of imprisonment in a one-room flat, Anna was driven to a metro station and released unharmed, though deprived of a gold ring and

other jewelry.

The official number of kidnappings that now take place each year in Ukraine is minimal. But unofficially, they run into dozens a year, said Kur.

Few report the crimes, either because they fear reprisals, or because they themselves operate in the shadow economy.

According to Article 123 of Ukraine's criminal code, the maximum penalty for unlawfully depriving a citizen of liberty is light, at 3 years of corrective labor.

Russia's abduction laws are similar, as its penalties too are based on the former Soviet penal code.

Organized crime gangs have also taken up the abduction business - a mobster arrested in St. Petersburg in October, for example, had taken 10 Moscow businessmen hostage for ransom.

The very cost of ransom is also on the rise, according to officials.

"In 1989, kidnappers used to charge

40, 000 rubles per victim", said Kur. "Now, that's nothing; the minimum request from a professional gang is usually not less than a million rubles".

The gangs often also kidnap one another.

Last week in a district on Kiev's Left Bank a gun battle took place between around 30 armed men belonging to two of the city's 10 or so gangs which divide up territory and profits between them.

One gang member was kidnapped at gunpoint, to be either killed as revenge or used for ransom money.