Russian Mafia Thrives in Berlin

Easternmost city with Western living standards is magnet for organized crime from ex-Soviet states

SINCE the collapse of communism about five years ago, Russian organized crime gangs have quickly come of age.

The so-called Russian Mafia has established beachheads across Europe and the United States. And they are strengthening ties with other organized crime groups, such as Colombia's Cali cartel and the Sicilian Mafia, local law enforcement officials say.

As they become more ambitious internationally, one of the Russian Mafia's most important bases for foreign operations is Berlin, city officials say.

And although Berlin may not be the only city that is battling the Russian Mafia, law enforcement authorities here feel the problem is more severe in this city than in any place outside the former Soviet Union. Two factors, they add, make Berlin a hub for organized crime: it's geographical location and the presence of Russian troops in the former East Germany.

``Berlin is the easternmost city in Europe that enjoys a Western standard of living. This specific characteristic acts as a magnet for those from former Communist countries to the East,'' said Norbert Schmidt, spokesman for the Berlin city-state Interior Department.

In addition to the Russian Mafia, criminal gangs from Romania, the former Yugoslavia, and Vietnam are also active in Berlin, Mr. Schmidt says. But it is the Russians who perhaps cause the most problems for authorities.

The Russian Mafia in Berlin specializes in extortion, counterfeiting, and illegal arms trading, Schmidt says.

In the arms trade, they serve as middlemen for rogue elements in the Russian Army, which has bases in Brandenburg state surrounding Berlin.

The Russian Army is currently in the final phase of a troop withdrawal from Germany. The last units are scheduled to pull out by late summer. In the meantime, a kind of weaponsbazaar attitude exists, Schmidt claimed.

``The Russians are unloading everything they have. There's no control. No one knows how many weapons they had and how many they still have,'' Schmidt said.

The arms sales may be common knowledge, but proving it is a different story. For one, German investigators are not allowed on Russian military bases in Germany.

Germany's Nazi past is also hindering the police's fight against organized crime. With memories of an all-powerful secret police - especially the Nazi SS - still in the back of many Germans' minds, current German legislation places strict limits on police search-and-seizure powers, while providing for extensive privacy rights.

``The international gangs are already working on a very high professional level,'' Schmidt said. ``Figuratively speaking, if they [the Mafia] are using computers, we are still using an abacus.'' Law enforcement officials say police powers will have to be expanded if they are to gain the upper hand in the fight against organized crime.

Lawmakers in Bonn are currently wrestling with a proposal that would allow police to use wiretaps against suspected organized crime figures.

But the issue is highly sensitive politically, and at least one party in Chancellor Helmut Kohl's governing coalition, the Free Democrats, is resisting any change to the current legislation, which forbids the use of such wiretaps.

While it waits for a wiretap law, Berlin officials have also established a good working relationship with Russian law enforcement agencies.

``The Russians are interested in what their citizens do,'' Schmidt said. ``For us, there is a big advantage working with Russian police. We get to know the Russian mentality and that helps us to better deal with the Russian Mafia.''

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