St. Pete Starts Operation Gypsy Camp
Vladimir Kovalyev, Moscow Times, May 26
ST. PETERSBURG -- Police have stepped up patrols and document checks of Gypsies in an operation aimed at making St. Petersburg streets safer for tourists this summer.
The operation, named Tabor, or Gypsy Camp, kicked off Thursday and is to run until next Monday in downtown St. Petersburg and other popular tourist spots “where cases of theft and begging have become more frequent,” Interfax reported, citing police officials.
The crackdown was launched at the request of the Russian Tourist Industry Union, which is trying to make sure that St. Petersburg streets are safe after a series of robberies tarnished the city’s image last year.
“We sent a letter to the police a couple of weeks ago asking them to provide some measures on the eve of the tourism season,” said Sergei Korneyev, head of the Russian Tourist Industry Union in St. Petersburg.
“As far as I know, the police are going to increase the number of patrols in the center as they did last year,” he said.
The most outrageous case of theft took place in August, when 21 elderly British tourists in a group of 35 were robbed on two consecutive days. On both occasions a group of Gypsy children surrounded the tourists in broad daylight on Nevsky Prospekt near the Oktyabrskaya Hotel, boxing them in and grabbing their purses, bags and cellphones.
Greencastle Travel Ltd., a British tour operation based in Hereford, England, complained to the Russian Tourist Industry Union, which then turned to the police.
Police took some steps to force groups of Gypsy panhandlers out of the city center.
Police officials were unavailable for comment about the ongoing Gypsy Camp operation. But in a letter sent to the Russian Tourist Industry Union in December, senior police official Vladislav Piotrovsky said, “The police share your concerns about the frequent cases of crime against foreign citizens and assure you that the measures being taken will provide security for foreign citizens in St. Petersburg.”
Respected human rights organization Memorial condemned the police actions against Gypsies as discriminatory.
“Judging from reports in the media, the police action last year was unsuccessful,” said Olga Abramenko, head of a Memorial project to protect the Roma community. “It looks like this is a case of persecution on the basis of nationality.
“The name of the operation, Gypsy Camp, summons up unpleasant associations,” she added, in a reference to the Nazi persecution of the Roma community.
This time, police say, they are going to check places where the Roma community lives and gathers in the city and deport those who do not have proper registration papers, Interfax reported.
The police plan to increase the number of patrols in the subway and in the Central, Admiralteisky, Vasileostrovsky, Petrogradsky and Petrodvortsovy districts.
Abramenko said document checks often get out of control, as when police burned down Gypsy tents in a city suburb on April 21.
She added: “Last Friday we got a report from a camp in Obukhovo that the police had shown up there that day and started shooting automatic rifles in the air and demanding that the Gypsies leave the city. About 20 families live there.”
Abramenko conceded that some Gypsies steal, but said the police are not addressing that problem correctly and are using document checks as a pretext to mistreat them.
Despite the police operation, at least one group of Gypsies was spotted robbing tourists Saturday on Nevsky Prospekt.
“Walking on Nevsky Prospekt, I was shocked to see a group of Gypsies robbing tourists all day,” said Raymond Gorissen, a freelance photographer and journalist from Belgium who followed the group for several hours and took photographs of them. The photographs clearly show organized groups of Gypsy children and adults attacking and robbing tourists.
“Everybody knows what they are doing, and the authorities or police don’t seem to mind. This is like a cancer for such a beautiful city as St. Petersburg, and it’s growing,” Gorissen said.
But the Russian Tourist Industry Union said it expects tourists will find St. Petersburg to be safer than last year.
“It looks like the police have started taking this matter seriously after our repeated inquires,” Korneyev said.
“It is the problem of any big city,” he said. “The same kind of thing happens in Paris, for instance, where groups of Gypsies follow tourists. The main thing for the police is to monitor the most popular tourist routes in downtown St. Petersburg.”
More than 3 million tourists are expected to visit the city this summer, he said.