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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Crime Pays, and Russia Is Suffering

Is there hope for a country where windshield wipers are routinely stolen off cars? The question came up at an editorial meeting at The Moscow Times a week ago. Some people felt it was unfair to judge a country by windshield wiper theft, which has been a problem here for many years due to an offshoot of communism: a shortage of spare parts. They also pointed to incidents of urban crime in the West, notably theft of car tape players.

Since that discussion, the person whose wipers were taken replaced them, only to discover a few days later that the car's headlights had been stolen. and so the question resurges: Is there hope for a country where people steal the headlights out of cars? Headlights are more shocking than a tape player; they are an integral part of the car. Without them, the car feels gutted - just as Russia's economy is being gutted by the terrible spread of crime and corruption that has accompanied the first year of moves toward a free market.

The problem is so vast that President Boris Yeltsin called a special Kremlin meeting about it this weekend. The subject is so sensitive - presumably due to the number of officials implicated in very high places - that the meeting was closed to the press. But some details have emerged.

According to a confidential report to the meeting drawn up on instructions of Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, and obtained by Nezavisimaya Gazeta, profits made by the "shadow" economy totalled 2. 5 trillion rubles, or $4. 5 billion, in 1992. Where does the money come from? Theft and embezzlement, at all levels.

Walk past the stalls opposite Kievsky station any day and you will see a motley assortment of simple folks selling anything and everything, from clothing to toilets to - headlights. This is a free market of a sort the government never wanted to establish, a market where goods unavailable in the shops, and clearly obtained illegally, are sold in a vast free-for-all. It is the lowest level of the problem.

At the top are, for example, the $2 billion that Yeltsin complained have simply disappeared from the coffers of the Foreign Trade Ministry. Who removed the money? Where is it today? Nobody knows.

The worst problem appears to be that the very people charged with preventing crime are in on the take. and just like the people selling stolen goods on the streets of Moscow, most of these officials are not being punished.

"Corruption in the organs of power and administration is literally corroding the state body of Russia from top to bottom", Yeltsin said this weekend. As president, it is up to him to do something about this.