Poor Dmytro (Firtash)?

Firtash may be caught by the throat, but most other oligarchs are feeding merrily still

Firtash may be caught by the throat, but most other oligarchs are feeding merrily still

Can one feel sorry for a multi-millionaire ($673M according to some, $2.3B according to alternative accounts, and $3.8B to others) suspected of bribery, who reportedly admitted consorting with wanted gangsters and once boasted of his close ties to Yanukovych? If so, then spare a thought for Ukrainian gas and titanium tycoon Dmytro Firtash, arrested in Vienna on a US warrant on bribery and organised crime charges. Why on earth might one feel any sympathy for him? Not for the philanthropy, not even for the massive donations to my alma mater at Cambridge to endow Ukrainian studies. Rather than Firtash would seem to be a businessman of the regular Ukrainian oligarchic variety. What does that mean? It means certainly not clean by Western standards, but nor, in any meaningful sense, an organised crime figure himself. So what might he have been?

When he first started building his energy empire, bringing Russian gas into Ukraine, the infamous financial crime lord Semen Mogilevich was a shadowy but indispensable fixer and broker. His  involvement was pretty much essential to make any Russo-Ukrainian gas deals work. So, of course, I was entirely unsurprised when the accounts (subsequently denied) of an admitted connection arose. If nothing else, there had been widespread rumours beforehand. Furthermore, Mogilevich–who has an interestingly unique role as, in effect, the boutique personal banker of choice to post-Soviet crooks of every stripe–would conceivably also have been a useful contact and service provider for subsequent sub rosa activities such as moving money abroad discreetly, evading taxes or doing any of the other patriotic parlour games at which post-Soviet plutocrats excel. (more…)

The risk of a gangster “Transdnestrianisation” of the Crimea

Now, does he look like a gangster to you?

Now, does he look like a gangster to you?

Just a quick note to the effect that over at Russia! magazine I have a piece looking at the allegations that de facto Crimean premier Sergei Aksenov was in the 1990s a gangster known as ‘Goblin’ in one of the two main gangs in Simferopol. I go on to consider, regardless of the truth of these allegations, the risk that an annexed or even maximally-autonomous Crimea might become a criminalised pseudo-state like the ‘Transdnestr Moldovan Republic’, just distinctly larger and more closely linked to Russia.

Will ‘Goblin’ Make Crimea a “Free Crime Zone”?

The claims that Crimean premier Sergei Aksenov was once a gangster with the underworld nickname of ‘Goblin,’ has at once been a gift to headline-writers and also a potentially alarming portent for the peninsula’s future.

Aksenov, head of the Russian Unity party, was installed as Crimea’s new premier despite his being elected to the regional parliament in 2010 with only 4% of the vote. His role appears to be the face of Russian interests in the peninsula, but he faces claims that he is also the front man for regional organized crime.

Read the rest here.

Another vor down: Dato Melkadze shot dead

Screen Shot 2014-01-12 at 13.34.10As organised crime kingpin murders go, there is perhaps little kudos in being shot in the parking lot of a suburban big box store, but this was nonetheless the fate of Georgian-born Dato Melkadze, ‘Dato Poti.’ On the evening of 11 January, he went with his wife and children on a shopping trip to the Lerua Merlen (the French Leroy Merlin chain) store in Moscow’s Krasnogorsk neighbourhood . In the carpark he was apparently accosted by two people who claimed he owed them money; a conversation became a row; a row became an exchange of fire. Melkadze was wounded in the shoulder and abdomen by a ‘traumatic pistol’ converted to fire live ammunition and died in hospital.

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The Other Greek Tragedy: Georgian and Russian/Eurasian organized crime

Flags_Georgia_GreeceWith news of the arrest in Thessaloniki of Georgian vor v zakone David Mazanashvili (“Dato Rustavsky”), a member of the same Kutaisi “clan” targeted in this summer’s Europe-wide raids under Operation Skhodka, it is worth briefly remembering that Greece, while not on quite the same scale as–until recently–the Spanish coastline or Germany, is very much an area of interest to gangsters from Russia and post-Soviet Eurasia. Although Russian gangsters were attracted there in the 1990s by the climate, not-too-intimidating law enforcement and, let’s be honest, relative ease of acquiring forged documents and local passports–most notoriously the contract killed Alexander Solonik, who was murdered there himself in 1997–increasingly the country has come within the orbit of ethnic Georgian gangsters. To some extent this reflects the 1990s influx of ethnic Greeks (Pontian Greeks), especially from Georgia , who became bridges between the two underworlds.

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Latest on Treasury’s Campaign against Russian/Eurasian Organized Crime

usTreasuryUnder the terms of Executive Order 13581, the US Treasury has been seeking to locate and freeze assets associated with key organized crime kingpins, a range of Japanese, Latin American, Italian and Russian/Eurasian ne’er-do-wells. On 30 October, a new set of targets was announced, including six people and four businesses “linked to the Brothers’ Circle, a Eurasian crime syndicate.” I’ve written elsewhere (here and here) that I still do not believe that the Brothers’ Circle, as a specific crime group or “coordinating body”, actually exists and instead that it is a—perfectly reasonable—fiction-of-convenience to allow this Order to be applied against criminals operating within the very loose and often mutable networks of Russian/Eurasian crime.

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Updated after Biryulevo: Is Navalny a Revolutionary? If So, Which One?

Navalny-cartoonA few days back, I wrote this note: Is he a reformer, a radical, a revolutionary? Indeed, what do these kinds of distinctions mean? A reformer wants to change and ameliorate the existing system, a revolutionary wants to change it. In that context, it seems hard–at least, if we believe his rhetoric–not to see Navalny as a revolutionary. Following this thought, and in the hope of being able to say something about the man that hasn’t already been said in the umpteen articles, profiles and posts about him, I ruminated in a trilogy of articles for Russia! magazine, about the contrasts and similarities one might be able to see between Navalny and three icons (or devils) of the ‘official’ Russian Revolution: LeninTrotsky and Bukharin. Times change, but the underlying realities of power and the human condition do not. The key issue, ultimately, will be whether his focus will be of tearing down the old order or working with elements within it to change it. After all, a revolution need not be built on an uncompromising campaign of destruction, it can be negotiated–and likewise what may seem like a revolution in its sound and fury may, as the USSR discovered, actually replace one autocracy with another…

Since, then, the events of Biryulevo, in which the murder of a Russian man by a man presumed to be from the Caucasus sparked rolling race riots in Moscow, have also given Navalny the chance to speak out on race issues. It’s long been known that under the cheery liberal demeanor there lurk some attitudes which, to be honest, are much more traditionally and recognizably Russian. Certainly his initial responses, both through re-tweets of racist messages and then tweets of his own did not bode well. On his blog,he then proceeded to blame the riots on the Kremlin above all for encouraging and allowing the influx of workers and migrants from abroad and also from the North Caucasus (and let’s remember that these are Russian citizens; it would be like a mayoral candidate for New York wanting to bar African-Americans from southern states). He then went on to advocate a popular vote on tougher visa regimes for Central Asians, admitting graciously that “not every Central Asian is trafficking heroin” (no, they are more likely to be doing the miserable jobs no one else wants), but still blaming them for drug addition, crime and disorder.

Navalny is a politician. He is also a Russian and prey to many of the same unpleasant prejudices that even otherwise enlightened and humane Russians often do. (The irony is that Putin, while undoubtedly a Russian state nationalist, actually appears–as near as we can tell–to be less of a racist than Navalny. Go figure.) I can see the potential political merits of positioning yourself as the tribune of the angry and disenfranchised Russian lumpenproletariat (and judging by the images, those mobs don’t get much more lumpen). I can also accept that there are issues of crime, alienation and even intimidation connected with living near particular concentrations of migrants. Navalny is not one to encourage pogroms, to be sure, but at the same time, by sympathizing with the rioters, by presenting the paroxysm of violence that ripped southern Moscow as the desperate cry for help by victims, then he is at the very least giving violent racists aid and comfort.

It would be just too, too easy to suggest a pseudo-Nazi salute here...

It would be just too, too cheap, glib and easy to suggest a pseudo-Nazi salute here…

I wonder if, returning to my revolutionary comparisons, this may prove to be Navalny’s equivalent of Lenin’s decision to seize power in 1917; a moment when political opportunism begets its own original sin. By seizing power in a country so unready for a proletarian movement, Lenin virtually ensured that a Stalin (or at least some kind of authoritarian modernizer) would arise, despite Bukharin’s hopes for NEP. In other words, the political compromises he made then–and to win the Civil War–actually doomed what positive potential there may have been in the Bolshevik movement. If Navalny becomes similarly seduced by the idea that he can rise to power, and do reformist good, by harnessing this embittered, angry racism, then he may well find that he cannot so easily tame these energies. Instead, they may possess him: the hungry ghosts of the Black Hundreds, of General Skobelev (the butcher of Geok-Tepe), of Pamyat, all await the summons…

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