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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Video Pirates to Walk the Plank

Valentina's blue eyes sparkled with amusement when asked if she thought Russia would be a better place without its huge market for pirated videos, cassettes and CDs.

Half a dozen burly police officers in black leather jackets and matching jeans were turning her small video kiosk at Moscow's Yaroslavsky Station upside down, making an inventory of pirated video cassettes and piling them into boxes.

The tax police and inspectors, led by an agent from the Russian Anti-Piracy Organization, or RAPO, were part of a 40-member team raiding dozens of similar small steel-and-glass kiosks dotted around four of Moscow's central railroad stations earlier this summer.

Valentina was insouciant. She wasn't the owner, and had no idea that all the cheap, 45 ruble ($1.80) videos were pirate copies, illegal rip-offs of Hollywood blockbusters like "Titanic" and "Godzilla."

"I don't think Russia would be better off with a licensed market for videos because people here are too poor to afford these sort of videos. That's my opinion," Valentina said, before adding nonchalantly: "Anyway, this isn't my problem. My boss gets upset when we have these sort of raids because we lose cassettes and customers. We have to pay the rent and make a living, you know."

The chance of prison time is nonexistent, and the low fines are a slap on the wrist taken by pirates as a green light to continue their activities. Konstantin Zemchenkov, director of RAPO, acknowledges that the law lags behind his team's will to combat piracy, but is confident that by harrying the pirates, they can cut their market share.

"We know we're getting results because I've had death threats from pirates who don't like the fact they're losing money," Zemchenkov said. "A couple of months ago, some guys even came here to my office. When they started mouthing off, my guys simply opened their notebooks and reeled off their home addresses, vehicle details and family relationships. That sent them packing."

RAPO was set up with financial help from the U.S. film industry in July 1997 after an initiative by Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association, who met with then-Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin during a visit to Moscow. RAPO has a staff of 10, including five investigators.

RAPO members include MPA's U.S. members and 14 Russian companies, including top distributors Varus Video, Premier Film, Gemini Film, ORT television and private station NTV. Film director Nikita Mikhalkov was elected RAPO president in February 1998.

The piracy cops are all hand-picked former servicemen from Russia's elite OMON police and intelligence services. Last year, in RAPO's first full year of operation, the team carried out 1,381 raids, the vast majority on retail outlets, but including 60 actions against video labs, 21 at printing works and 25 on public screenings of illegal films. More than 825,000 video cassettes were seized.

Of the 976 civil court cases, 815 were in the local administrative courts where confiscation orders helped RAPO reduce the percentage of pirated tapes on sale in Moscow to 55 percent down from 90 percent the year before. But the economic crisis has boosted the pirate market and the rate is now back up to around 80 percent.

The need for stronger laws is demonstrated by RAPO's difficulties in pressing criminal cases. Only a dozen out of 161 cases have so far reached judgment, and all resulted in suspended sentences or low fines.

The railroad station raids netted 3,000 bootleg cassettes, but one senior investigator, Oleg, classed it as quiet day. There was no trouble and only a little lip from one of the minor mafia leaders at Kursky Station, who tailed him for 15 minutes, said Oleg, 35, a veteran of Afghanistan.

"It's a great job - we're doing something positive to help Russia become a more law-abiding, normal country, and I'm able to use my skills without being tempted to work in mafia outfits, like so many other former servicemen," he said.