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Russia: Cleaning Up The St. Petersburg Police Force

St. Petersburg, 21 August 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Visibly shaken and despondent, General Anatoli Ponidelko, the police chief of both St. Petersburg and the Leningrad region, met the press Tuesday to talk about Monday's murder of St. Petersburg Vice Governor, Mikhail Manevich.

This high-profile murder could not have come at a more embarrassing and sensitive time for the city's beleaguered police force.

The police chief told reporters that the police have a composite drawing of the assassin, and that the murder was a conspiracy consisting of probably four men, in contact by portable telephone, who were watching the vice governor from the moment he left his apartment located not far from the scene of the crime.

Ponidelko speculated that the crime was not political but was connected to the Tambov mafia group which has a reputation as the city's most powerful criminal structure.

The timing was embarrassing because Ponidelko last week had promised to clean up and strengthen his force. Even by Russian standards, it is notoriously corrupt. He said he was launching a war against internal crime.

"Not a day goes by that a criminal case isn't opened against a city police officer," Ponidelko told reporters.

Earlier this month, Ponidelko, who has been the city's top policeman since January, announced a 12 percent decrease in crime from the first half of 1996 to the same period this year. But Ponidelko said even then it was too early for police officers to pat themselves on the back. The number of crimes solved by city police lags significantly behind the national average.

Ponidelko singled out special forces OMON brigades, which are infamous among Russians for their excessive use of force, and the city traffic police (GAI). He chided OMON officers for hiring themselves out as protection service to businesses and promised that this practice would cease and that OMON officers would live on their salaries.

According to Ponidelko, a social survey shows that 97 percent of the city's drivers are dissatisfied with the work of GAI. He accused the traffic police of extortion, bribe-taking, rudeness, and providing protection to both criminal groups and businesses.

The GAI are probably the most notorious government agency in Russia. Some traffic inspectors will stand at key places on city roads, flagging down cars to check for violations. A reason for a fine is almost always found, and the motorist will pay rather than have the supposed violation registered.