Russian crime kingpin Tariel Oniani convicted: crackdown or conspiracy?

On 19 July, Russian-based organised crime boss Tariel Oniani (also known as Tariel Mulukhov or ‘Taro’)) was sentenced to 10 years in maximum-security prison for 2009’s kidnap in Moscow of fellow Georgian businessman ‘Johnny’ Manadze, for whose release he was demanding a $500,000 ransom. His conviction in Moscow’s Khamovnichesky District Court reflects a new and distinctly less exalted chapter in the life of one of Russia’s most powerful but also most unruly kingpins. It may be a sign of a new commitment by the state to crack down on the godfathers, but could also reflect a roundabout way for his fellow gangsters to deal with a threat to them all and the fragile underworld balance of power.

Oniani, who has been (plausibly) connected to the murder of old-time vor v zakone Vyacheslav Ivankov (‘Yaponchik’) in 2009, had become a destabilising force within the Russian underworld. He left his native Georgia in 2004 when President Saakashvili illegalised the vory v zakone and promised a renewed crackdown on organised crime. He moved to Spain, but in 2005 was forced to flee ahead of an arrest warrant. Finding sanctuary in Russia, where he already had substantial criminal interests as well as a network of contacts within the ethnic Georgian underworld, he moved aggressively to expand his operations, involving himself in a range of activities allegedly ranging from extortion to illegal gambling.

He acquired a reputation for being careless of the customs, understandings and etiquette of the Russian underworld. He had no qualms about moving into others’ turfs and ignoring established mechanisms for resolving disputes with other gangs. He rose rapidly, but gained enemies with equal celerity.

In particular, he fell foul of the Kurdish crime boss Aslan Usoyan (‘Ded Khasan’), a feud which led to a series of killings starting in 2007 and also represented growing friction between the Georgian criminals, dominated if not necessarily led by Oniani, and the North Caucasus gangs, represented by Usoyan. By 2009, with tensions across the Russian underworld increased by the impact of the global and local financial crisis, this feud threatened to explode. In 2008, Russian gangsters had tried to broker a peace between them and failed, to a large extent because Oniani refused to compromise. At least to give the appearance of conciliation, he agreed to allow Ivankov to try and arbitrate a dispute with Usoyan over gambling businesses, but recurring reports have suggested that when it became clear that Ivankov was inclining towards Usoyan’s case, Oniani had him killed.

That Oniani was arrested is perhaps unsurprising. This is a man who hardly shies from personal involvement in his criminal operations and makes little pretence as to his status. That he was held (and refused bail, even for the Rs. 15 million he offered), tried and convicted to a serious sentence – with the prospect of then being sent to Spain for trial when released as he hold only Georgian citizenship and is thus not immune from extradition – is more unusual.

On one level, it may reflect a new crackdown on organised crime. At the end of last year, a new Russian law – ironically similar to one introduced by Moscow’s arch-enemy Saakashvili – allowed for the prosecution of vory v zakone simply for having acquired that underworld status. It will be interesting to follow the trial of alleged gang leader Vladimir Tatarenko, who is being extradited from Greece, to see if Oniani’s case heralds a more general toughening of the line beyond the usual occasional token case. If it does, that could either reflect a genuine commitment to the struggle, or an opportunist bid to establish President Medvedev’s law-and-order credentials before the 2012 presidential elections (likely to be fought again Vladimir Putin who, for all his manifest disinterest in actually turning rhetoric into reality during his presidency, still has a tougher reputation), or – most likely – a little of both.

However, it may well also reflect a wider consensus within the avtoritety (‘authorities’) and the vory z zakone that Oniani had become dangerous and a liability. Sometimes when an individual seems to be rocking the boat, stability is restored by an assassin’s bullet, as in the case of Otari Kvantrishvili, shot in 1994 when he tried to assert his control over all Moscow’s gangs. In the case of Oniani, though, while some of his associates and lieutenants are fair game, such a direct move would almost certainly spark the generalised turf war the godfathers are trying to prevent. What better way to deal with the problem than have the state do the job for them? In this respect, it may well be that the availability of evidence, the willingness of the prosecutors to be bullish and the Kremlin’s support for a conviction were also all helped by the quiet desire of the kingpins to see this troublesome and dangerous man taken out of circulation, while key figures within his organisation, the men who might either hold it together or act as his proxies, are picked off (including lieutenants in Europe) or induced to break with him.

Oniani reportedly plans to appeal. If he is successful, I wouldn’t be surprised if the next moves against him are rather more direct – but I’m sure he is equally marshaling more than just his legal resources. Although his conviction does go some way to averting the risk, a serious mob war is not yet out of the question.

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