The Godfather Of Vilnius?

In his black-and-gray-striped prison uniform, with shaved head and hands cuffed behind his back, Boris Dekanidze is a shadow of the swaggering playboy he once was. Only months ago, he was notorious in Vilnius for his extravagant lifestyle and the gangster company he kept. He and his father, Georgy, ran trading businesses moving, among other things, raw materials and goods between next-door Russia and Central Europe. But law-enforcement officials in the Lithuanian capital say he did more than that. According to court records, he and his burly comrades from the Vilnius Brigade allegedly headed a protection racket involved in extortion.

Along the way, the Vilnius Brigade attracted the attention of an investigative reporter for a daily newspaper called Respublika. In a series of innuendo-filled and often thinly reported articles, Vitas Lingys accused the Brigade of a number of shady dealings. Last October Lingys was shot dead near his home in Vilnius. Police charged Dekanidze with ordering the hit, and on Nov. 10 he was convicted of ""deliberate murder'' by a three-judge panel. Now Dekanidze sits in Lukiskes Prison awaiting execution and protesting his innocence. Police investigating the case think they have stumbled onto an international network of Russian mobsters, but they haven't yet found the big boss.

Dekanidze's incarceration signals a crackdown on organized crime. Lithuania has become a center for mafia activity according to Lithuania's chief prosecutor, Arturas Paulauskas. Located conveniently between Russia and the West, it makes a natural haven for smugglers of everything from narcotics to stolen strategic metals. Lithuanian crime figures have sophisticated intelligence networks and connections to Russian mafiosi in Europe, Israel and the United States. So flagrant was the lawbreaking that the government decided it needed to make an example of someone. ""We reached a critical point,'' says Paulauskas. ""We had to show whether it was they who are winning, or the state.''

Georgy Dekanidze says his son is the victim of a kangaroo court. According to him, the Dekanidzes are just clever businessmen who got rich, in part, by selling Russian timber in the West and importing Western computers to Russia. ""I'm no godfather of any nonexistent mafia,'' says Georgy, a husky Georgian whose hands sparkle with gold bracelets and two diamond rings set in platinum and gold. He sits across a black desk from a TV screen that monitors foot traffic in the hall out-side; thickset men guard his door. ""I'm a normal person, not a devil in black,'' he says. Dekanidze says he started a sewing cooperative in the early days of Soviet reform. Then with the breakdown of the Soviet system, Russian-Lithuanian border controls collapsed, and there was no functioning tax system. ""It was easy to make a lot of money,'' says Georgy.

In Lithuania chaos has created opportunity. At auctions to privatize state businesses goons force bidders to withdraw, leaving mafia bosses to buy up the best properties. Million-dollar transactions, routinely conducted in cash, lead to fraud and nonpayment of debts. This in turn makes room for private enforcement of such agreements. ""When you have a collapse of government and total incompetence, people appear who can organize themselves and influence the lives of others,'' says Georgy Dekanidze. ""I can't say if this is good or bad.''

Police say it has certainly been good for Dekanidze. They allege that he used ties with the underground in the early days of his business to ""acquire'' goods from state factories. In early November, German officials told the Lithuanian government of a possible plot to blow up its nuclear power plant; Lithuanian newspapers alleged that Dekanidze made the threat in the event his son got the death penalty -- a charge he calls ""absurd.''

Last week the government announced a suspension of all death sentences, and there will be a review of all pending cases. The decision to prosecute Boris had a strong political motive; the government hung its case on the testimony of one hit man from the Vilnius Brigade who turned state's evidence. The Lingys murder investigation has, according to police, uncovered signs of an organized-crime network stretching from Singapore to Vilnius and the predominant-ly Russian neighborhood of Brighton Beach, in Brooklyn, N.Y. But lack of international official coordination has allowed local crime figures to cover their tracks. In the murky dealings of the former Soviet Union, it's nearly impossible to find the real godfather.