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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Not All Uniforms Can Be Trusted in St. Pete

ST. PETERSBURG -- As it gets ready to celebrate its 300th birthday, St. Petersburg is suffering a crime wave similar to those afflicting many European cities -- except that here the criminals are often the men in uniforms.

Foreigners have figured prominently among the victims of policemen or criminals in police outfits.

"Watch out for police!" May Andersson, the Swedish consul in St. Petersburg, told Dagens Nyheter, a Swedish daily.

Tim Waite of the British Consulate echoes the warning, saying: "It is strange, but we feel safer with ordinary people in the city than with the city police."

St. Petersburg gets a lot of visitors from North European countries just across the Baltic Sea, and some of them are among the victims.

Anna Axman, a Swedish businesswoman, says she and friends were surrounded by seven or eight men in police uniforms who took 6,000 rubles (about $200) from her backpack. Then she was robbed again near her apartment.

Vesa Hakkinen of the Finnish Consulate says Finnish citizens have reported at least five robberies by uniformed men in the past month, and the Finnish government has posted advice on a web site advising its nationals on dealing with police.

Sometimes the offenders do not commit robbery but demand victims pay a bribe or be hauled off to a police station. Anderson, the Swedish diplomat, advises foreigners to walk in groups and to be extra careful around Nevsky Prospekt, the boulevard at the heart of St. Petersburg where there are many shops, restaurants, hotels and night clubs.

Lev Loshchinov, who is in charge of fighting police corruption, said hundreds of Russians and dozen foreigners register complaints about police every year. Sometimes the criminals are real policemen, sometimes military men or civilians dressed in police uniforms, he said.

Every year a few crooked policemen are caught in special operations, he said. But a special commission made up of diplomats, police and city officials has failed to solve the problem. The absence of witnesses, lack of police staff and low salaries are all to blame, Loshchinov said. "Of course, it's not an excuse, but just think -- how can a grown man who has a family live on a salary of $100 a month?"

Meanwhile, St. Petersburg fears the crime wave will drive away investors and tourists in 2003, its tricentennial year. "In various seminars on business opportunities in Russia, the first two worries Swedish businessmen express are the stability of the Russian economy and crime," Axman said.

Loshchinov said: "It is definitely a very painful situation for the city's image."