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.

The “Novosibirsk Jamaat”, the rise of Russian jihad, and a mix of crime and terrorism

Not really about Sochi, for a change. I’ve just published a piece in Russia! about the emerging threat of Islamic extremist and terrorist groups in parts of the country outside the North Caucasus — and the recruitment of Slavic Russian converts into a new (if still very rare) kind of jihadist terrorism.

Of late I’ve felt I ought to be on retainer from the Sochi Olympic administration, given the effort I’ve been putting into trying to address some of the more lurid and hysterical accounts of the “terrorist threat.” For the record, my view is that Sochi is, thanks to the massive security operation, as safe as such an event going to be, in such a location, facing a near(ish)-by jihadist insurgency. That is not to say that Russia is safe from terrorism, by any means, as the events as Volgograd and Pyatigorsk have shown; indeed, I’d be surprised if the next month didn’t see some kind of incident(s) outside the North Caucasus themselves (where they are, sadly, a regular occurrence). One of the more alarming long-term trends is the apparent rise of jihadism outside the North Caucasus, among both the scattered Caucasus and Central Asian communities of Russia but also—doubly alarming for a security apparatus all-too-often dependent on clumsy racial profiling—amongst ethnic Russian converts.

Read the rest here. (And in case you’re wondering about the crime angle, a group currently on trial, the so-called “Novosibirsk Jamaat”, staged armed robberies to raise funds for the insurgency.)

“Новосибирск Джамаат», рост российского джихада, и сочетание преступностью и терроризмом

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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Mayhem in Moscow: Biryulevo, the (under)police state and a little slice of Novocherkassk

Беспорядки в московском районе БирюлевоAs if fate were an obliging sociopath, willing to burn and beat in a helpful effort to make my recent point–that Russia is not the massively policed security state some would suggest–today has seen a tragic murder spark an anti-migrant/non-Russian fury that, in turn, has stretched Moscow’s police to the limit. This ‘police state’ has had to put the entire Moscow Main MVD Directorate (MGUMVD) an alert and also deploy Interior Troops tonight to try and damp down violence in an outlying southern suburb of the city.

Biryulevo/Biryulyovo, at the southern rim of Moscow, is hardly on anyone’s tourist itinerary, and maybe that’s the point, it’s the kind of run-down industrial, crime-ridden, low-rent periphery where migrants–both legal and illegal, both foreign and Russian Federation citizens–find lodgings, jobs, market spaces and also live cheek-by-jowl with ethnic Russians who often resent them. And, let’s be honest, while many are hard-working and honest souls doing the back-breaking market, construction and similar work no one else wants to do, and for a pittance, there is also a problem with crime, random intimidation and cultural miscommunication.

On the night of 9 October, 25-year-old Egor Sherbakov was knifed and killed, reportedly by a non-Russian, who had been hassling his girlfriend. When no arrests were forthcoming, on Saturday 10 October, a group of maybe 40 Russians protested against what they saw as police inaction. Their rhetoric acquired an increasingly nationalist, anti-migrant tone. The protests worsened on Sunday, when a mob that at peak may have been a thousand-plus strong broke into a vegetable warehouse and shopping complex where many workers hail from the Caucasus. When the police intervened, the mob turned their anger against them and Biryulevo became torn by running clashes between rioters and police, reinforced from across the city and by the OMON security force. Cars were overturned, people hurt, mayhem ensued.

Biryulevo2As of writing this, over 300 people have apparently been arrested (and as I write this, the figure continues to rise: 380 and counting), Moscow police chief Yakushin has offered a 1 M ruble ($31,000) reward for identifying the killer, and #Бирюлево becoming a short-lived Twitter trend. The clashes may be bubbling down and the cries of “Russia for the Russians! Moscow for the Muscovites!” may be silent for now (and you never hear “Crappy Low-Pay High-Risk Remont Jobs for the Russians!” as a rallying cry), but nonetheless this explosion of violence taxed the MGUMVD to the limit. Police were bussed in from around the city and emergency mobilization plan Vulkan (“Volcano”) saw the entire force put on alert.

All this for just a thousand rioters? But what about all those OMON skull-breakers with their rubber truncheons, those formidable Lavina-Uragan water cannon, those thousands upon thousands of cops? It is perhaps unsurprising that already we are getting the hints that the cops were either complacent or complicit. Moscow Helsinki Group head Lyudmila Alexeyeva has said “It is interesting” [that classic passive-aggressive "I will hint at dubious practices without actually be willing to say so outright" phrasing], “why law enforcement personnel were absent in Biryulyovo. People who gathered in Biryulyovo were really aggressive, unlike those who filled Bolotnaya Square on May 6 2012… Why do our law enforcement services deal rigorously with peaceful demonstrations and are not active enough where disturbances really occur?”

On one level, fair enough, but misguided. Whatever the rights and (evident) wrongs of Bolotnaya, that was an event that was scheduled and anticipated, and the police mobilized substantial resources to that end, just as they did for the March 2012 presidential inauguration. That takes time, preparation, resources; it’s not something you can just whistle up on spec. Police are needed elsewhere, too; other locations have to be secured; officers are off-shift, on leave, sick. There aren’t necessarily the vehicles to get them to the right place at once, they need to get outfitted for riot duty, so it goes.

Беспорядки в московском районе БирюлевоIt also reflects the role that the OMON and other forces appear to have played in Biryulyovo. Instead of sending lines and phalanxes directly into the mob, which would disperse them quicker, especially if backed with tear gas and water cannon, at the cost of greater injuries and property damage, they were largely used to try and block the mob in smaller areas (“kettling”) and hoping it would disperse or could be dealt with piecemeal. It’s hard to reach any conclusive judgment from news video and pictures, but they seem not to have been especially successful at that, but I cannot help but wonder what the critiques would be had they rolled in hard.

Is it possible there was a sense that ethnic Russians deserve to be treated with a lighter hand that “blacks”? Quite possibly. And given the way that cops were mobbed in the Matveyevsky food market back in August when they tried arresting a Dagestani rapist, this may also have, if you’ll excuse the expression, colored their views. But there is also the unavoidable truth that violence can also beget violence. As was, the police received a considerable degree of abuse for not protecting Russians from “foreigners” and it is unlikely that a good dose of o-chlorobenzylidene malononitrile (that’s CS gas to its friends) would do much for community relations.

The fact of the matter is that a police force which is qualitatively often mediocre–and I think it’s fair to say that the Russian police too often still are–needs to make up the shortfall with quantity. By my calculations, Moscow has a respectable 426 officers per 100k population, but only if one goes by the official census population of 11.5 million people in the city. It’s generally accepted that the real population is distinctly greater, although no one really knows by how much. If we accept the high-end estimate of 17 million (even though I’d guess this is too high, although I am no urban demographer), then actually the ratio is actually 288 per 100k. The real figure is no doubt something between these two extremes, but even so the ratio is going to be substantially below that of London (430/100k) or of New York (415/100k: 34,500 cops for a population of 8.3 million). Sure, central Moscow always seems full of cops (although in part this is also because many of the uniforms that look like cops aren’t, being anything from private security guards to state security), but head out to the suburbs, somewhere like Biryulevo, and the situation is very different.

Of course, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen racist violence on Russian streets. We could look to this summer’s “Russian Raids”, or the 2010 “soccer riots” in Moscow, or Kondopoga 2006, or… you get the idea. Maybe we could just consider this part of the vicious background noise of modern Russian multiculturalism, especially given the tensions between the Russian/neo-Soviet nationalism underpinning Putin’s state-building efforts and his refusal to accept a narrowly ethnic notion of Russian statehood.

But I confess that I can’t shake off more than the obvious unease generated by inter-ethnic violence and mobs in the street. What I might think of as bunt (Pushkin: “The Russian bunt [rebellion], mindless and pitiless, will sweep everything, turn everything to dust”) appears instead to be known these days as  “narodny skhody” or “popular gatherings”; -the term echoes both the  “skhod” or “skhod grazhdan” (citizens’ gathering) in traditional local government and also the “skhodka” sit-downs between gangsters. This seems to suggest a degree of popular legitimacy and I fear it may be accurate.

I find myself thinking about Novocherkassk, 1962. By chance, piece-rate norms and thus in effect wages at the Budenny Electric Locomotive Factory had been cut and then food prices were increased. A strike became a protest, became a march on the town hall and police station. The police were unable or unwilling to disperse the swelling crowds of protesters. The army was recalcitrant. Eventually the security forces opened fire on the crowds: 29 would die, 116 arrested and the whole event hushed up until 1992. On one level, this was a minor issue; the Soviet state was easily able to squash such incidents. However, what made it significant were two points which have resonance with today’s Biryulevo bunt.

1. The police could not or would not deal with the protests. To be honest, the dividing line between won’t and can’t is often unclear, but one of the key jobs of police is to be the civil security force, the agency that can mediate between the public and the state in such a way as to resolve things without escalating to agencies that turn more quickly to kinetic solutions (if you’re not up on that particular euphemism, it means shooting people). Ironically, it should be the aim of every liberal to see a strong police force; you may not be a fan of the riot-armored “cosmonauts” but were they not there, which do you think is more likely, that the state will meekly accede to your reformist desires, or that it will unleash soldiers and security troopers?

2. Novocherkassk was nowhere special. It was just one more shabby industrial city. That was precisely why the events of 1962 scared the Soviet elite, because of a sense that if a confluence of unfortunate events could lead to protests and bloodshed there, it could happen anywhere. Likewise, with all due respect to the Biryulevo Vostochnoe raion, but that counts as nowhere special, too. There may be some specific circumstances that made it more likely to be the epicenter of such actions, but I am sure that several dozen Moscow rains alone could just as easily have exploded were the stars right (or wrong).

Biryulevo4The next few days will no doubt see statements, inquests, recriminations and rationalizations galore. (Though the MGUMVD’s own website’s newsline only has one short story to the effect that they are looking for the murderer; otherwise the big story seems to be the grand opening of a wrestling gym.) It will be interesting to see how the narrative emerges. But for me, amongst many lessons (chief of which seems to be the urgent need to address the terrible inter-communal relations within Russia) is precisely that stability and civic peace would be well served by qualitative but also quantitative development of the police force. At a time when the Kremlin seems to be wondering whether it needs two or four ocean-going aircraft carriers, I’d suggest the MVD ought to be much more of a priority.

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