Could the murder of a no-more-than-moderately infamous local gangster in Abkhazia, Astamur Gulia, ‘Astik Sukhumski,’ mark the start of a wider gang war following the murder of Aslan Usoyan, ‘Ded Khasan’? Usoyan’s death inevitably sent shock waves through an underworld already in a degree of turmoil. The long-running feud between Usoyan and Tariel Oniani (‘Taro’), the hungry encroachments of Rovshan Janiyev (‘Rovshan Lenkoranskiy’) for dominance over the Caucasus gangsters, new disagreements with Zakhar Kalashov (‘Shakhro Junior’), sparked by rows over the distribution and management of his assets after he was arrested in Spain in 2006, all these helped ensure that the ‘mountaineers’ — the gangs from the North and South Caucasus — were increasingly at daggers’ drawn. However, it’s important to realize that for all the airtime they get, the ‘mountaineers’ do not comprise the majority of Russian organized crime and the extent to which there are wider, economic and political pressures also bearing down on the status quo that has held for the past decade.
The 2008 financial crisis started the dominos falling, driving as it did some gangs into near-penury and thus permitting others to eliminate, incorporate or marginalize them. Despite the recovery of the Russian upperworld economy since then, its patchy nature has especially hit many regional gangs. So, how to make up for the shortfall? For many, the answer has been to try and cut themselves into a piece of the action from the Afghan heroin trade, which is growing steadily. For others, it is to seek to exploit major government projects, of which the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics are one of the most tempting.
Thus, there has been a steady series of murders and attempted killings in recent years, from Vyacheslav ‘Yaponchik’ Ivankov’s back in 2009, through the assassination of three of Usoyan’s representatives around Sochi (he had moved first and fastest to take advantage of this opportunity). Usoyan narrowly survived a similar hit in 2010.
As if all this were not enough, there are factional, ethnic and above all generational tensions. Usoyan was very much one of the last of the old order, and the newcomers are either thuggish (though not necessarily stupid) gangsters who enjoy calling themselves vory v zakone (‘thief within the code’) like the old, Gulag-era leaders, without accepting the limitations of that code, or else they are criminal-entrepreneurs, largely Russian, eagerly on the make. To them, the agreements hammered out at the end of the 1990s, the accepted etiquette for trying to resolve disputes without a razborka, a war, all of these are just ancient, irrelevant history.
So while it is certainly not the case that a new round of turf wars is inevitable, it is probably closer than at any time in the last decade.
In that context, what to make of Astamur Gulia being riddled with bullets in his native Sukhumi on 21 January, as he left the Basla restaurant (eating out seems to be a risky proposition for mobsters these days)? Gulia was very one of Janiyev’s allies, a local gangster with greater ambitions. Given that Janiyev is looking to sweep away the old order, he is an obvious magnet for such figures, and he also knows how to reward his own. Gulia was one of five clients of Janiyev and his ally gangster Dzhemo Mikeladze (‘Dzhemo’) formally declared to be vory v zakone at a gathering in Dubai in December 2012 (which elevated fully 16 men to that rank). This was not a ‘coronation’ held in accordance with the strict rules of the vorovskoi mir (‘thieves’ world’) and Usoyan rejected and denounced it.
On one level, this was another sign of Usoyan’s antediluvian nature: these days, buying the title or arbitrarily assigning it to your clients is the norm; the days of the true vor coronations are over. On the other it is worth noting that, albeit with a little more care for the formalities, Usoyan — perhaps himself knowing war was likely and eager to build his own army — sponsored some 30 gangsters to be vory in recent years. Even vory are pragmatists…
His murder could, of course, just be one of those things, the kind of death that often faces aggressive gangsters-in-a-hurry. After all, even before Russia’s intervention into Georgia, Abkhazia was a key smuggling turntable to and from Russia and if anything it is now even more closely connected into the Russian underworld and thus a lucrative target of opportunity.
However, it could well rather be part of retaliation for the hit. Usoyan’s nephew and chosen successor, Dmitry Chanturia (‘Miron’ or ‘Miron Yaroslavsky’) appears to have duly taken over. However, the 32-year old Chanturia has not really yet demonstrated the skills and strengths needed to be a war-time godfather. Born in Georgia in 1981, in 2004 he was made Usoyan’s representative in Yaroslavl, a significant appointment for a 23-year-old but not a key one. That year he was arrested alongside another member of the clan, Yuri Usoyan, and found in possession of drugs, but he managed to get onky probation. In 2005, another case was opened against him, on forgery charges, but this came to nothing. However, when Usoyan was almost killed in a hit in 2010, Chanturia was summoned to Moscow to be his uncle’s eyes, ears and voice, regularly holding court in the Bosfor restaurant. It was clear that Usoyan was looking for loyalty over experience.
Chanturia proved surprisingly able, but more more of a negotiator than a fighter, and this is something he will have to address if he is to avoid challenges to his newfound rule. Chanturia cannot afford to look weak.
There are those around Usoyan who suspect Janiyev was behind their patron’s murder. Given that launching a hit on Janiyev is not going to be that easy, taking down one (and possibly more) of his henchmen, especially one upon whom Usoyan had previously frowned, might seem a good start. Janiyev’s other key underlings: Mikeladze, Antimos Kukhilava, Aleksandr Bor (‘Timokha’), Iraklii Pipi and Akhmed Yevloyev (‘Slouching Akhmed’) ought no doubt to be on their guard.
More within the Usoyan network, though (and, it appears, the police) put the blame on Oniani. However, Oniani himself is in prison and well-protected and Oniani’s network is substantially larger and more politically-connected. Oniani is also a Georgian whereas Janiyev is an Azeri, and the dominant figures within the ‘mountaineer’ underworld (beyond the Chechens, who are something of a group apart) are Georgians. For all these reasons, if Chanturia is looking for an opportunity to show his martial spirit, but is wanting to avoid an all-out war to the knife, then it might well behove him to at least affirm that he blames Janiyev. In due course, after all, he’d need to deal with the Azeris.
Lest this sound fanciful, Chanturia would simply be taking a leaf out of his uncle’s playbook. After the 2010 hit, Usoyan initially blamed Oniani, but subsequently began asserting that Janiyev was responsible, as he tried to reach a peace deal with Oniani. That didn’t lead to peace, to be sure, but in many ways this was an equivalent of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact. It’s not that either side trusts the other, nor that they doubt that eventually they will be at war, but that neither is ready for armageddon quite yet.
(There is one other possibility: that Oniani and Janiyev were anyway working together. After all, a close Oniani aide, Merab Dzhangveladze, is also reportedly on good terms with the Azeri and Oniani did approve the Dubai ‘coronations’. However, were the two in alliance I can’t help feel that they would have enough strength to make a much more extensive assault on Usoyan’s network.)
Eventually, though, any such conflicts will spill back into Moscow. It was interesting that Usoyan’s hurriedly-reconvened funeral (his family had wanted him buried in Tbilisi; the Georgian government didn’t and turned back the plane carrying his body) was a surprisingly low-key event, by the over-the-top standards of such events (especially when compared with Yaponchik’s in 2009. There was a respectable presence of gangsters, but rather fewer, and they tended to be of Usoyan’s network. I can’t help but suspect that many gangsters outside his camp who might otherwise have attended decided to avoid it lest they seem to be taking sides. When war is coming, you need to be careful.