Blood Brotherhood: Chechen organised crime

I have just had published in Jane’s Intelligence Review a piece on Chechen organised crime (http://jir.janes.com/public/jir/index.shtml, 28 August 2008), and while it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to reproduce the whole article here, I thought it might be useful if I summarised some of the main findings.

Chechen organised crime is not a specific gang so much as a distinctive criminal subculture. Often known as the bratva, ‘brotherhood’ – although sometimes it is described as the ‘Chechenskaya obshchina’ or ‘Chechen commune’ – it is a characteristic mix of modern efficiency and a bandit tradition.

Origins

One of the central themes of Chechen tradition is that of the abreg, the honourable outlaw whose banditry is driven by vendetta or the crimes of the powerful. The abreg is a self-sufficient and wily figure, who often gathers a gang of like-minded daredevils around him, raiding the rich, feeding the poor, protecting the weak and a scourge of the corrupt. While essentially mythological, the figure of the abreg is still a powerful one, providing a degree of legitimacy to the modern gangster. This tradition interconnects with the Chechens’ equally long and bloody custom of resistance to external pressure – above all the Russians. Their experience of conquest, insurgency and alienation from an exploitative alien state has left its mark. With the whole idea of the state being regarded with suspicion, traditional relationships of blood and clan remain central. The 150 clans, teips, remain a basic building block, but these are often quite loose structures, with the tribal elders’ main roles being to resolve disputes within the community or with others. Within the teip, a more immediate role is played by the nekye, an extended family. While most of these are linked purely by blood and marriage, the concept of ‘family’ is often broad, allowing outsiders, even from other Caucasus peoples, to be ‘adopted’ – so long as they prove themselves both loyal and useful to the family as a whole. These structures also provided a strong and flexible organisational basis for crime gangs, as discussed below.

The Criminalisation of Chechnya

A particular strength for the bratva was the way Chechnya became a virtual criminal fiefdom in the early 1990s. Under Dzhokhar Dudayev, the very organs of the state became incorporated within criminal networks, while hitmen were sworn in as police. After his death in 1996, his successor, Aslan Maskhadov, made some efforts to combat the more overt forms of banditry. However, these were hamstrung by a lack of resources and authority and were made irrelevant by the 1999 invasion. The pro-Russian regime under Ramzan Kadyrov is likewise bedevilled by claims of lawlessness, banditry and corruption

‘Two Chechnyas’

Especially during the first Chechen War (1994-96), Moscow claimed not only that it was fighting to topple a criminal regime in Grozny but also that it was connected to, and using the services of, the wider Chechen criminal diaspora throughout Russia. Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov claimed in 1996, for example, that strike teams of Chechen gangsters were being dispatched to cities across Russia, planning “the complete destabilisation of Russia.” While the Dudayev regime was undoubtedly criminalised, the evidence suggests a striking division between the networks operating in Chechnya and those outside the republic. Nikolai Suleymanov, the powerful Chechen gangster known as ‘Khoza’, described this as the “two Chechnyas.” There were connections between the two, largely through kinship, with deals being struck and personnel moving from one world to the other. However, these relations were strikingly pragmatic and Russian-based gangs were very keen to downplay their connections with their counterparts. In part, this was out of fear of being targeted by the authorities as potential fifth columnists and in part a genuine and widening cultural divide between those Chechens who were wheeling and dealing in a larger, predominantly Russian context and those who stayed locked within the tighter and smaller world of tradition and kin.

This division only grew under Putin and during the Second Chechen War (1999-), when it was made very clear that any hint of support for the rebels in Chechnya would bring savage reprisal. Furthermore, the rise of Islamist radicalism within Chechnya and the rebel movement left the bratva unimpressed. While Chechens are a Moslem people, theirs has tended to be a relatively moderate, flexible form of Islam. The gangsters’ pursuit of money, power and the high-rolling lifestyle they can bring does not fit with the jihadists’ puritan ideals.

Organisation

Russian organised crime is characterised by large, loose and often overlapping networks of semi-autonomous local gangs. The Chechen bratva can be considered one of these networks, second only to the predominantly-Slav Solntsevo grouping. However, the bratva is at once looser and more cohesive that its Slavic counterparts. Constituent gangs guard their autonomy even more fiercely and such leaders who rise tend only to be able to command their own personal gangs (over the rest of the bratva they merely exert the moral authority of a successful abreg), but the common sense of fierce national identity they share tends to make them more willing to assist other gangs, especially when under threat by outsiders. While capable of very violent internecine conflicts, the sense of being surrounded by enemies – and Russian enemies at that – means that the bratva retains an unusually high degree of internal solidarity, with disputes typically resolved through negotiation and the intervention of respected elder figures.

In many ways, Chechen organised crime thus draws on the patterns of Chechen society. Constituent gangs are either small groups built around one or a few charismatic or effective leaders or else larger collections of such gangs, such as the Avtomobilnaya, which dominates Moscow’s district of that name. They correspond to the nekye or the teip, respectively, and likewise the role of their ‘elders’ is to manage inter-gang relations.

Personnel and recruitment

This parallel also extends to personnel and recruitment. The smaller gangs tend to be based initially around some primary affiliation, whether direct kinship or other personal ties. However, they are also able and willing to recruit from outside this tight circle and ‘adopt’ further members. Nonetheless, the gang will tend to be built around personal relationships, usually directly to the leader. Larger groupings will in turn bring together a variety of these smaller gangs, united either by the area in which they operate or else the teips from which their leaders trace back their origins. This concentration on both kinship and personal loyalties also helps explain the fierce loyalties within Chechen crime groups and the difficulties the authorities have in penetrating them and recruiting informants.

‘Franchises’

The Chechens play a disproportionately powerful role within the Russian underworld, but they are too few to be responsible for all the activities and make up as many gangs as the authorities claim. It would be easy to discount this as a by-product of the way the Chechens have been demonised by state and public alike, and there is some truth in that. Certainly ethnic Russians seeing a criminal of Caucasian origin will often simply assume they are Chechen when they could just as easily be Ingushetian, Ossetian or one of the numerous other regional nationalities. However, there is more to it than that: the efficiency and ruthlessness of the Chechens has given them a powerful ‘brand name.’ This, in turn, is increasingly ‘franchised’ to other gangs, many of which contain no Chechen members and may even be entirely made up of slavs. However, by being able to claim that they ‘work with the Chechens’ (this is the usual expression) and thus signal that not only will they work to the bratva’s own merciless standards but that if necessary they can call on their support, gangs acquire considerable additional authority. Victims which might otherwise consider resisting their extortion demands are more likely to pay; rival gangs are less likely to challenge their turf boundaries; and even law enforcers might think twice about taking them on. In return, the gang pays a cut of its proceeds and subordinates itself to the nearest influential Chechen godfather, who may call on them for services in the future.

Area of Operation

The main focus of Chechen operations is within Russia. As well as within Chechnya itself, there are Chechen gangs across the country, including Siberia and the Far East, often building on the presence of communities left by the forcible resettlements of 1944. Their greatest concentration, though, is in Moscow, where they control several of the city’s main gangs: Avtomobilnaya, Ostankinskaya, Tsentralnaya and Yuzhno-Portovy, each named for the district it dominates. Other concentrations are in St Petersburg (where they are nonetheless overshadowed by the Slavic Tambovskaya network), Yekaterinburg and the south of the country. Chechen gangs in the rest of former Soviet Eurasia are largely present in Georgia and Northern Kazakhstan, again where there are local communities left from the forcible resettlement.

Outside the fSU, Chechen gangs operate in the Baltic states, Germany (especially Frankfurt and Hamburg), the Low Countries and south-eastern Europe. In May 2008, a gang made up mainly of Chechens was disbanded in Bulgaria. Having operated there since the 1990s and developed good relations with local gangs, the group specialised in protection racketeering, debt collection and laundering money from Russian-based groups in property on the Black Sea coast and local businesses. The Chechen community in Turkey, which has long had a reputation for dabbling in banditry, is also being transformed by an influx of newcomers with greater ambitions and ample funds at their disposal, who are beginning to engage in heroin trafficking and money laundering.

Although there likewise have been specific cases of interactions with other groups, on the whole the Chechens do not actively seek out interactions with other players in the global underworld. This is not least because they seek to work with other criminals from a position of strength, not equality. This is an effective tactic within Russia, where smaller local gangs cannot or are unwilling to challenge the fearsome bratva or else want to affiliate themselves with it. However, it has prevented the Chechens from reaching anything more than limited, specific accords with other major crime groupings which have no real reason to fear or need them.
Illegal activities and methodologies

The more successful ethnically-Slav Russian mafiya groupings have tended to diversify and create seemingly legitimate facades behind which to maintain the broadest possible portfolio of business activities, Chechen gangs have tended not to evolve beyond their core specialisms, in the use of violence. Perhaps remaining true to their bandit roots, they continue to be heavily involved in extortion and protection racketeering.

Conclusions

However exaggerated in the Russian media and public mind, the Chechens’ reputation for efficiency, ruthlessness and discipline is well-founded. While a powerful force within the Russian underworld, they have so far largely confined their activities to their home country. However, as they forge connections with Russian and other criminals as well as Chechen communities abroad, they are beginning to become an active presence on the world stage. Nonetheless, a limiting factor is that they are still primarily limited to members of their own community. Furthermore, the cultural identity that gives them greater coherence also limits their operations as most still seek to emulate the abreg. They are as a result less flexible and entrepreneurial in their activities than their Slavic counterparts.

Author: Dr Mark Galeotti is director of the Organised and Russian Eurasian Crime Research Unit at Keele University, UK, and from January 2009 will be professor of global affairs, Center for Global Affairs, New York University.

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