Date: Fri, 14 Mar 97 18:02:18 CST
From: David Isenberg <email@example.com>
Russians arming themselves
By Fred Weir, Hindustani Times, 12 March 1997
MOSCOW (HT) -- Battered by rising crime and fearful of social unrest, record numbers of Russians are arming themselves with a variety of deadly weapons. Experts say many of them are pilfered from stockpiles of the former Soviet Army.
"There is an explosion of gun ownership in Russia today, now spreading beyond the criminal world to those whom we would call average people," says Nugzar Betanelli, director of the Institute for the Sociology of Parliamentarism.
"The mentality of society is changing in response to the general breakdown of order and widespread criminalization. People believe they must protect themselves."
For those Russians who want to stack the odds in their favour, the legal options are on display at the Kalchuga Gun Shop, a huge firearm emporium located barely a block from the Kremlin.
It sells a wide range of shotguns and hunting rifles, available to any customer who can prove to his local police department that he is in good health and has no criminal record.
The most popular items are gas pistols, of which Kalchuga stocks a staggering variety, priced from $100 U.S. and up. These are perfect replicas of real weapons, capable of firing a high-velocity stream of tear gas that can knock a person unconscious at 5 metres.
"Everybody is buying gas pistols these days," says the floor manager, Alexei Popov. "Ladies get small ones to carry in their purses. Men prefer big ones, with holsters slung under their arms.
"Basically they all want the self-confidence a weapon provides. We sell them faster than we can get them in."
But experts say the burgeoning black market in genuine firearms, as well as the relatively-innocuous gas pistols, is the real social nightmare facing post-Soviet Russia.
"Only a tiny fraction of people with weapons have obtained them legally,"says Larissa Kosova, a sociologist with the independent Opinion Research Centre.
A survey she conducted two years ago found that 14 per cent of Russians carried a weapon "for self-defence" on a daily basis.
"I would guess that figure is now closer to one-in-five," she says. "Also, what people are choosing to carry around with them is growing more frightening all the time."
Private ownership of military-style firearms is unlawful in Russia. But experts say the black market is flooded with assault rifles, sub-machine guns, pistols, grenades and explosives, which are fuelling a street-level arms race of terrifying proportions.
The daily Komsomolskaya Pravda recently surveyed the illegal arms bazaar, and found much of the vast array of death-dealing hardware being offered is the former property of Russia's impoverished and demoralized armed forces.
"The weapons have simply disappeared from arsenals and military warehouses . . . and all the documents are conveniently lost," the newspaper said. "No one knows the quantity of arms stored around the former Soviet Union that could ultimately end up on our streets."
Violent crime has steadily mounted since the collapse of the USSR. The Interior Ministry reported almost 1,000 contract murders alone last year, mostly the result of literal cut-throat competition among Russia's crime-prone new capitalists.
"The fastest-growing market for illicit guns is so-called businessmen," says Col. Sergei Proshin, head of the Moscow police force's illegal weapons department.
"They are scared of each other, and often have good reason to be."
Col. Proshin says his department confiscates about 1,000 illegal weapons a month, but admits that is just a tiny drop in an overflowing bucket.
"I won't say we are fighting a losing battle, but that's the way I usually feel," he says.