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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

yeltsyn's crime decree

On Ostuzhev Street, bomb shrapnel wounded the director of the store Alternativa, his bodyguard and his driver. A 47-year-old sanitation worker who happened to be standing nearby was killed. Just a couple weeks ago, a bomb exploded on Novokuznetsky Street as the president of LogoVAZ, Boris Berezovsky, was leaving his office. Berezovsky was wounded and his driver was killed. A few days later, a bomb killed a woman outside the office of a bank that was also owned by LogoVAZ. The statistics are appalling and the situation is only getting worse. In 1992, there were 185 explosions in Russia, mostly in Moscow, killing 31 people. In 1993, 83 people died in 545 explosions. This year, the rate of growth is continuing apace. In all, only 14 to 17 percent of these crimes are ever solved. These bombings are mostly the result of disputes between businessmen, who believe that it is senseless to settle matters in the civil courts. The courts take so long that the money involved is consumed by inflation. Therefore, businessmen secretly turn to the services of mercenaries who use bombs and machine guns to frighten people into settling up. The same means are used by criminals to divvy up spheres of influence and to get businesses to pay protection money. I have spoken to many entrepreneurs about these attacks and I have been stunned by their fatalism. "It is unavoidable," some say. "During the chaotic transition to a civilized market economy, it is very tempting to get rich quick using guns and bombs." Others add, "Until the Duma passes some laws regulating the market economy and until an effective struggle against gangsterism begins, the reforms in Russia will not succeed." Now President Yeltsin has issued a decree concerning the battle against crime. It would seem that it is time for society to breathe a little easier, at last. Instead, however, everyone is alarmed. And, it would seem, for good reason. The decree grants the police rights that could easily be used to the detriment of society. One part of the decree states that searches may take place without official witnesses. This means that any unprincipled policeman seeking to make a quick career move can simply plant a weapon or drugs on his victim. Of course, such things happened before, even when there were witnesses; now, though, everyone being searched is at the mercy of the police. One of the old ills of Russian law enforcement -- abuse of authority and a lack of accountability -- may soon, as a result of the decree, become even worse. The effort to resolve cases more quickly, to stand out before one's superiors and to receive promotions and raises, has led police investigators in the past to alter and even openly falsify documents. The new decree will make things easier for such investigators. The length of time that a suspect can be held without charge will be increased from three days to 30. The illegal methods of inquiry that are already being used (such as beatings in prison cells and rapes by dangerous recidivists intentionally placed in the same cell with suspects) will have longer to break the suspect's will and he will denounce himself. Such things have happened in the past, but it would seem that the president's advisers who drew up the decree were in such a hurry that they neglected the lessons of our recent past. Another provision in the decree allows the uncorroborated testimony of informers to be admitted as evidence in court. However, it is important to remember that police informers are almost always people who have had their own problems with the law, such as petty thieves who got leniency in exchange for their cooperation. Information from such sources must be confirmed. Another problematic provision of the decree empowers the police to investigate the financial affairs of both the suspect and of any relatives who have lived with the suspect for more than five years. The result of this provision will certainly be that businessmen will keep their wealth in the form of cash hidden away, or they will send it abroad to foreign banks. The decree also provides for the punishment of witnesses who refuse to testify in court. But their fear is completely understandable: If criminals are able to take revenge even on businessmen who are surrounded by bodyguards, imagine how easy it is for them to handle ordinary witnesses. The first thing that the president and the Duma should have done to combat terror is to legally and financially guarantee the security of witnesses. This means not just physical protection, but relocation, new jobs, housing etc. Such a law was passed in its first reading at the Duma recently and sent back for reworking. The final bill will probably take another six months -- perhaps a year -- to become law. Such delays in the Duma provoked Yeltsin's hasty decree on crime. Russia's criminal code is clearly outdated. It is essential to introduce into the code the concept of "organized crime," without which it is difficult to charge those who plan or order crimes but do not actively participate in them. Clearly, the Duma must pass a whole series of laws regulating business in Russia according to the principles of the market economy. The lack of these laws creates fertile ground for the use of criminal means to resolve business disputes, which in turn expands the opportunities for criminals to make millions through guns and bombs. The current situation is so confused and society is so oppressed by the reign of terror that decisive measures are simply unavoidable. Otherwise, Russia's road to reform will come to an end. Nonetheless, the battle against crime must be waged without undermining the law and without giving free rein to the police. Violations of the law by government structures could let loose a wave of lawlessness that this country has not seen since the height of Stalin's terror. Igor Gamayunov is an investigative reporter for Literaturnaya Gazeta. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.