I’ve been critical in the past of the US government’s designation of a Russian/Eurasian organized crime ‘group’ that it calls the Brothers’ Circle, I’ve grumbled that “I’ve never heard serious talk of a Brothers’ Circle” and that I’ve never seen any evidence of its existence as a specific grouping. That said, I’ve never assumed that the Treasury was full of fools and assumed that it was simply a handy generic label to allow the new anti-crime initiative something to hold on to. Let me set the record straight: while I still don’t believe the Circle exists as a specific, formally-structured organization, it’s becoming clearer just what the USG’s strategy is, and I think it’s an imaginative and clever one.
In particular, the Treasury has just designated another five kingpins, and it’s worth highlighting them because I think it does help illustrate what’s going on:
Brothers’ Circle leader Temuri Mirzoyev has been identified as a crime boss in Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg), Russia. In September 2006, he was arrested along with another criminal figure during a gathering at a casino in Sochi, Russia.
Brothers’ Circle member Vladimir Vagin has seven criminal convictions and has been wanted by Russian law enforcement since March 2009 on charges of attempted murder. He fled to the United Arab Emirates but escaped from their custody in March 2010 and disappeared.
Brothers’ Circle member Lasha Shushanashvili was in overall charge of a criminal organization; his subordinates included his brother, Kakhaber Shushanashvili, and Koba Shemazashvili. Lasha Shushanashvili avoided being detained during a March 2010 Europe-wide law enforcement operation that resulted in the capture of Kakhaber Shushanashvili, but later was arrested in Greece in January 2012. Lasha Shushanashvili is wanted in Spain on several charges and in Georgia for extortion and acting as a criminal boss. In addition, he sent two assassins to meet his brother in Spain as part of an effort to murder a criminal rival.
Brothers’ Circle member Koba Shemazashvili was Lasha Shushanashvili’s subordinate in his organized crime network and has been described as his “right-hand man.” Separately, he along with Kakhaber Shushanashvili assaulted two criminal rivals in the Netherlands. He was wanted by Spain on a variety of criminal charges, and in July 2011 he was arrested in Ukraine; he entered a Spanish prison in February 2012.
Kakhaber Shushanashvili operates for or on behalf of Brothers’ Circle member Lasha Shushanashvili by serving as his subordinate in his criminal network. In March 2010, he was arrested in Spain as part of a Europe-wide law enforcement operation targeting a Georgian criminal organization. He oversaw funds that were collected, including through credit card fraud, from other Europe-based members of the network.
MIRZOYEV , Temuri Suleimanovich (a.k.a. MIRZOEV, Temuri; a.k.a. “TIMUR SVERDLOVSKIY”; a.k.a. “TIMUR TBILISI”; a.k.a. “TIMUR TBILISSKIY”)
DOB 7 May 1957
POB Tbilisi, Georgia
SHEMAZASHVILI, Koba Shalvovich (a.k.a. SHERMAZASHVILI, Koba; a.k.a. “KOBA RUSTAVSKIY”; a.k.a. “TSITSILA”);
POB Rustavi, Georgia
SHUSHANASHVILI, Lasha Pavlovich (a.k.a. MALGASOV, Ymar; a.k.a. SHUSHANASHVILI, Lasha (Iasha) Pavlovich; a.k.a. “LASHA RUSTAVSKI”; a.k.a. “LASHA RUSTAVSKY”; a.k.a. “LASHA TOLSTY”)
DOB 25 July 1961
POB Rustavi, Georgia
SHUSHANASHVILI, Kakhaber Pavlovich (a.k.a. KOSTOV, Nikolay Lyudmilo; a.k.a. ROSTOV, Nicholas; a.k.a. SEPIASHVILI, Moshe Israel; a.k.a. SHUSHANASHVILI, Kajaver; a.k.a. SHUSHANASHVILI, Kakha; a.k.a. “Kakha RUSTAVSKIY”);
8 Rukavishnikov Street, Mariinskiy Posad, Chuvash Republic, Russia
DOB 8 February1972
POB Rustavi, Georgia; alt. POB Kutaisi, Georgia
VAGIN, Vladimir Viktorovich (a.k.a. “VAGON”)
Sadaf 2 Sector, Tower C06-T06, Apartment 603, Dubai 32900, United Arab Emirates
DOB 3 February 1966
POB Raditshevo, Russia
Again we have that interesting UAE connection, but otherwise these five figures do help round out the original unmagnificent seven, not least including this time a brace of Georgian criminals as well as a Russian. Again, all are well-worth targeting. Lasha Shushanashvili, for example, is a vor v zakone (‘thief in law’ or ‘thief within the code’, a ‘crowned’ authority figure within the underworld) and an associate of the notorious (and murdered) Vyacheslav ‘Yaponchik’ Ivankov. A particularly interesting development is that all five of these, to greater or lesser extents, have connections with Aslan Usoyan, the infamous ‘Ded Khasan’ — ‘Grandfather Hassan’ — who is one of the last of the true godfathers of Russian and Eurasian organized crime. As a time when most organized crime in the region is becoming networked, constellations of individuals and groups with no clear hierarchy or leaders (though none the less formidable for that), Usoyan and his mortal enemy ‘Taro’, Tariel Oniani, are amongst the few remaining old-style godfathers with a truly national, indeed international reach (even though there may be signs that Usoyan is trying to get out of the business after a recent assassination attempt).
So does it mean that the ‘Brother’s Circle’ is Khasan organization, and the US Treasury is specifically targeting it? No, it’s not so neat. (And if it were so straightforward, I’d be alarmed, as it would in effect mean that the US government would be doing Oniani’s dirty work for him. Although choosing between the two men is a little like deciding which serial killer you want to be stranded on a desert island with, I’d say Oniani is an even more unsavory character than Usoyan.) The first batch of names, for example, did not share any such overarching affiliation; indeed, a couple have done business with Oniani’s associates. Thus, it seems to me that we are getting a better sense of just what USG means when it talks about the ‘Brother’s Circle.’ Not a relatively clearly-defined, hierarchical structure like a Japanese Yakuza or even LCN ‘family,’ but an inter-connected network of criminal movers-and-shakers who connect through common financial and criminal interests, from managing drug flows from Afghanistan to dividing up the revenues from protection rackets in major cities. After all, going back to that Mafia ‘family,’ these are not made up just of kin: ‘family’ just denotes the nature of the bonds and relationships meant to be at work. Likewise, these ‘Brothers’ are often rivals or busy doing their own thing, but they are connected through the pervasive connectivities that characterize the Russian/Eurasian underworld. Bit by bit, the Treasury is adding new names of individuals who are (a) serious criminals worth pursuing; (b) connected with one or other of the major networks but not necessarily all the same one; (c) viable targets whose assets may be vulnerable, largely because of international interests; and also (d) individuals whose role is important not just in their own right but also often because they are nodes, points of connectivity between other gangsters, groups or criminal activities (as the first batch, for example, were disproportionately involved in drug-trafficking flows).
This interconnected nature of the Russian/Eurasian underworld is at once their strength and their weakness. One of the brilliant effects of the Treasury’s decision to go after these kingpins’ money under EO 13581 is that they begin to become toxic. The old model of the criminal obshchak, a gang’s common fund which was used to pay off officials, look after the families of those in prison, etc, has pretty much disappeared except for a few smaller and more traditional gangs. However, the custom lives on in the way that many criminals pool resources for specific operations and freely borrow funds when needed. he danger is that if you let any of your resources intermingle with one of these designated crooks’, then they may end up frozen or confiscated too. Given that no gangster is going to have signed a contract in such circumstances or be able to prove what is his money and where it came from, they are unlikely to be willing or able to ask the Treasury pretty-please to give it back. So these designated kingpins increasingly become unable to benefit from, contribute to or even handle the funds of other criminals, and breaks begin to open up within networks. Maybe, it will begin to worry other crooks. It certainly undermines the trust and reciprocity that is crucial in maintaining these networks (and which is all the more important when there is no godfather, ruling council or rigid ethical code to enforce agreements and maintain discipline). This is the way, bit by bit, the strategy will nibble away at the wider networks, even while bringing grief to a collection of individuals who amply deserve it.