Crime, Corruption Persist in Vladivostok

Russia's Far East port city of Vladivostok is notorious for rampant crime and corruption. Residents say the violent killings of the 1990s have subsided. Political analysts say criminals used to influence politicians — now, they are being elected to office.

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Next we're going to a crime-ridden city in a crime-ridden nation. The city is Vladivostok, Russia. It's a port in Russia's Far East, and we mean Far East. If you found this city you do it by going to the map, looking at Moscow, moving your finger seven time zones to the east. Residents say violent gangland killings that made that remote city infamous in the 1990s might have subsided now, but only because now the criminals are moving into politics. NPR's Gregory Feifer reports.

GREGORY FEIFER: It's a dramatic setting, from a bay on the Sea of Japan, Vladivostok rises inland over a series of steep hills lined with water stained soviet high rises.

(Soundbite of waves)

FEIFER: In the port a passenger ship navigates through oily water littered with bobbing plastic bottles and other garbage. Near the water, appealing 19th century buildings overlook teaming streets. In addition to the Russians, there are many Chinese and Koreans here. But apart from its frontier town energy, Vladivostok oozes with something else, crime and corruption. The city is the center of a major fish poaching industry and officials here make fortunes helping criminal groups smuggle timber, cars, and other goods.

VITAL LENA MATUNIF(ph)(Far Eastern State University): (Russian spoken)

FEIFER: Vital Lena Matunif of the Far Eastern State University says at least 70% of the region's natural resources are exported illegally. Vladivostok is holding elections for mayor next month after the previous mayor Vladimir Nikolayev was convicted of selling city land. Nikolayev is believed to be a one-time mafia enforcer whose nickname is Vinnie(ph) Pooh, Russian for Winnie the Pooh. Nikolayev, who's serving time in jail for beating a local official, was elected in 2004 after his main opponent was injured in a grenade explosion. That opponent was no stranger to violence. Unusually for Vladivostok, he had campaigned against corruption. A former mayor in the 1990s, Viktor Cherepkov wage an epoch battle against the then governor and he says several assassination attempts forced him to sleep in his office to protect his family.

Mr. VIKTOR CHEREPKOV (Former Mayor of Vladivostok): (Through translator) When everything else, the governor's people tried to declare me insane. In order to kidnap me from a hospital they controlled, they sprayed mercury inside city hall. When the ambulance staff came, I said I'd rather drink mercury than risk going with them.

FEIFER: Cherepkov says he was beaten, kidnapped, and his son sent to jail on a false charge. But Cherepkov says official corruption today is even worse that it was back them. He says in those days criminal groups might have influenced politicians, but the criminals themselves didn't hold power.

Mr. CHEREPKOV: (Through translator) Today, known criminals pay prevailing huge sums to help fix their position to office. That's how Moscow maintains control out here, because the local authorities know that they can be arrested at any moment if they step out of line.

FEIFER: The current governor denies such accusations. A former businessman, Sergei Darkin, was reappointed to office in 2005. He says there are no improper connections between business and politics in his region.

Governor SERGEI DARKIN (Governor of Primorsky Krai, Russia): (Russian Spoken)

FEIFER: Of course not, he says the region's reputation is beginning to change for the better. On Vladivostok's streets, residents say at least they have constant electricity and heat now, but that nothing has been done to rebuild the city since former Mayor Cherepkov constructed roads here in the 1990s. Cherepkov has been banned from running in next month's mayoral election, which the candidate from the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party is expected to win.

(Soundbite of guitar and singing in Russian)

FEIFER: Back down at the port, busker Serge Sirgumsacoy(ph) plays guitar on the steps of a dusty pedestrian underpass. He says most Vladivostok residents seem to think the city's corruption is normal.

Mr. SERGE SIRGUMSACOY (Busker, Vladivostok): (Russian Spoken)

FEIFER: The authorities spit in people's faces, he says, but they wipe themselves off and continue as if nothing had happened. Nothing will change here, he says, until our people learn that's wrong

Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Vladivostok.

(Soundbite of guitar and singing in Russian)

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