KGB Spies Find Tough New Mission: Guarding Russia's Nervous Bankers

EVERY morning and evening in one of Moscow's Soviet-era apartment buildings, bodyguards block elevator traffic for the banker who occupies the entire 16th floor. They station themselves at both ends of the elevator run and clear the car before he steps in.

Other residents grit their teeth and wait.

The banker can hardly be blamed. Russian businessmen, especially bankers, are being murdered with alarming frequency. The latest victim, the president of Lesprombank, was killed in a contract murder Nov. 8. One group of executives, the Business Roundtable of Russia, has lost nine of its top 30 members to apparent contract killings in the past year.

For protection, they rely on Moscow's finest - not the badly underpaid militia (as the police are called), but high-tech, heavily armed commercial security firms. Once a police state, Russia is becoming a state of private police.

A consultant to the Russian parliament's security committee, Andrei Kosyakov, estimates that more than 800,000 people in Russia work in private security services - 60 percent more people than serve in the standing Army of the United States.

Other analysts cannot confirm such a stratospheric count, but former KGB officer Petr Premyak, now a member of the upper house of parliament and chair of the security committee, notes that Moscow alone has at least 4,000 private security companies.

Everyone agrees that many of the most talented veterans of the Russian security services, including the former KGB, are bailing out of their impoverished ranks to join the private sector for better equipment, higher pay, and a less bureaucratic environment.

The ties between public and private police remain close. Some of the best private security officers are from the former Ninth Directorate of the KGB, which was responsible for protecting senior Soviet officials, says Alexander Gromyko, a deputy of the Moscow city council, and chair of the Law and Order Committee. ''The best of them went to private organizations to oppose criminal groups,'' he says.

Some of the private organizations, of course, are criminal groups. They may begin as extortion rackets and seek licenses as security outfits to get a legal right to bear arms.

Others don't bother. The Interior Ministry loaned out about 100,000 weapons last year - which is the legal way for firms to have them. But another 150,000 war weapons (automatic rifles and other guns with more than eight-round magazines) simply disappeared from government armories last year, says Mr. Kosyakov.

But Mr. Gromyko and others say that former state security officers are generally clean and an asset to the public safety.

In some cases, he adds, the private security officers will do most of the investigating of a crime, then hand the evidence over to the state militia for making the arrest. ''A 30-year-veteran major [of the militia or KGB] will work without mistakes,'' he says.

Guarding your assets

Alexander Orlov, the executive director of the Business Roundtable, openly wonders when he will be a target for the killings that have felled so many of his colleagues. He prefers to entrust his safety to his own guards. ''I don't trust a militia man,'' he says, because he is so poorly paid that he is more vulnerable to a payoff from a potential killer.

Salaries for patrol officers in the Moscow area are in the range of $140 to $250 per month. Interior Ministry security guards are paid even less.

Russian law does not allow private firms to protect people, which is a militia function, only property. So an entrepreneur may wear a gold chain around his neck that the guards protect, not-so-incidentally protecting the wearer too.

Russians often shrug off killings with the conviction that the businessmen targeted must have had criminal connections. Most probably do, according to experts in the field. But they may not realize it; in fact, one of the fastest-growing areas of security services in Russia is business research for firms to find out if their partners are legitimate.

A business also can get entangled with organized crime in trying to enforce contracts, since fewer than half of all court decisions are actually executed.

This means that quasi-legal entities arise to enforce the payment of debts, said Justice Minister Valentin Kovalyov recently. ''This is a great danger, and we already see signs of this happening.''

The problem, says Mr. Orlov of the Roundtable, is that Russia has been left with a ''low moral level'' because it has lost its old, Soviet set of mores, ''but we have not yet created the new.''

My name is Bondski

In the meantime, security is taking on a James Bond-like sophistication. Within months, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov plans to tie together all city emergency services - from police to ambulances to utility repair crews - in a system that uses satellite navigation and computerized maps.

The company that is making the system, staffed partly by former Russian space scientists and KGB veterans, has private customers as well. Banks can put their security and armored-car fleets on the system. If an armored car stalls in traffic, for example, its location immediately begins flashing on the map screens of police dispatchers. The car's doors and windows can be locked remotely from the central control room until it arrives at its proper destination.

The company also customizes Land Rovers into over-the-top, high-tech security machines with - to name just a few features - extinguishers for 11 different kinds of fires; scanners to detect listening devices in nearby buildings; lights for blinding oncoming drivers; and a roadblock contraption laid with large spikes set with exploding charges, which stretches from the side of a car across 50 feet of roadway.

The Moscow police are purchasing eight Land Rovers, but private companies buy them too. Eventually individuals will be able to equip a private car with an alarm that flashes its location on the computer maps for the police.

The growing sophistication of security services raises the cost of crime, literally. When a businessman is well-guarded, the price of a murder contract on him can rise to $300,000. At that point, in the cold-blooded calculus of criminal enterprise, the killing may not make business sense.

Russia's Spies Go Private

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.