News is just breaking that Russian (actually Kurdish Yezidi from Georgia) crime boss Aslan Usoyan (‘Ded Hasan’ or ‘Ded Khasan’ — ‘Grandfather Hassan’) was shot and killed last night in Moscow. Apparently a sniper took him down (some say with a head shot, but probably multiple hits) as he was leaving the Karetny Dvor restaurant on Povarskaya, known as his favored hang-out). He died in intensive care at the Botkin hospital.
While the details of the hit will emerge soon enough, the fundamentals are clear — another classic Russian mob killing, reflecting rising tensions within the national underworld as well as the prosecution of a long-running feud(s). The 75-year-old Usoyan was one of the foremost leaders within the Russian underworld, but at a time when that underworld is going through a process of realignment due to a number of forces, not least the increasing flow of Afghan heroin through the country. This was the third assassination attempt in his underworld career, after one in Sochi in 1998 and then another in Moscow in 2010. The latter was a result of his running feud with Georgian mobster Tariel Oniani (‘Taro’) who is currently in prison but still managing his extensive crime empire from behind bars. His feud with Oniani dates back at least to 2007 and has been one of the defining pressures within the Russian underworld.
Who might be behind the hit? The obvious potential suspects are three:
♠ Tariel Oniani, perhaps the most dangerous godfather in Russia today, even in prison. His Georgian-dominated grouping is not the largest in Russia (ethnic Russian networks like Solntsevo are larger and better-connected) nor possibly the most potentially lethal (I’d still put money on the Chechens), but he has a powerful organization, a ruthless character and the kind of passion for prosecuting vendettas that you’d expect from a Georgian. He is also especially powerful within the burgeoning world of heroin trafficking through Russia, giving him money and thus power, friends and guns… The police seem to be pointing the finger this way, and I confess it’s where I’d put my money, too.
♠ Rovshan Janiyev, an Azeri godfather whom Usoyan reportedly accused of the 2010 hit. Janiyev, known as ‘Rovshan Lenkoranskiy’ (‘Rovshan of Lenkoran’), is one of the most influential South Caucasian criminal figures, who clearly aspires to succeeding Usoyan as leader of the ‘mountaineers.’ His own criminal organization spans Azerbaijan, Ukraine and Moscow, where it has begun competing with both Usoyan’s and Taro’s interests. He is also allied to fellow gangster Dzhemo Mikeladze (‘Dzhemo’) and makes for a dangerous enemy, not least because, being something of an outsider, he has less to lose and fewer constraints.
♠ Zakhar Kalashov (‘Shakhro Junior’), a one-time ally of Usoyan’s. When the Georgian Kalashov was arrested in Spain in 2006, Usoyan appointed the vor ‘Lasha Rustavsky’ to be the guardian of Shakhro’s assets and the group’s obshchak. However, Oniani claimed to be owed a share and this led to a split the Georgian criminal diaspora and led to the defection to Oniani of violent gang leader ‘Merab Sukhumsky’ and his brother Levon, a noted contract killer. Nonetheless, more recently, Kalashov appears to have had increasing disputes with Usoyan, and he may have decided to sort these out in more definitive way, especially if in the process this might heal the rift with Oniani.
What happens now? Usoyan’s network was strongest in Moscow region and city (particularly its northern and eastern districts), and the Yaroslavl, Urals, Siberian, Krasnodar and North Caucasus regions. He also had the strongest stake in and around the Sochi Winter Olympics — a particular new opportunity (real estate, construction, hotels and restaurants, etc). His likely successor is his nephew, Dmitry Chanturia, known as ‘Miron’. Born in 1981, he has reportedly spent his lifetime also within the underworld, rising to become a regional boss in Yaroslavl in 2004. With the 2010 assassination attempt on Usoyan, Chanturia was brought to Moscow where he increasingly became his uncle’s right-hand and representative. However, many are not sure he is up to the task, and defections and splits within Usoyan’s coalition are thus quite possible, even likely.
So what happens now? There are essentially two options:
1. War. Usoyan’s network cannot let this go unpunished. More to the point, Chanturia (or whoever emerges as Usoyan’s successor) will have to assert his authority to his own subordinates and the underworld as a whole. Given the tensions anyway caused by sharpening competition over the spoils of Sochi and the heroin trade, this could spread and get very messy. We’re not talking about indiscriminate 1990s style conflicts, but still a serious escalation of mob violence.
2. Peace. Kinda. Turf wars are bad for (most people’s) business, and they may force the authorities to crack down. As a result, other key criminal leaders may hold a gathering, a skhodka, to try and broker a peace of sorts. The trouble is that I am not convinced this is possible. It may be that Oniani is now content, but can Usoyan’s people be convinced not to strike back? I think that those very pressures on the underworld will also undermine the power of the ‘gangster consensus’ to force a deal. They failed, after all, to settle the Oniani-Usoyan feud in 2009; why would they have more success now?
A Criminal History
Here is a short backgrounder on Usoyan, adapted from my article ‘Retirement plans – Russian mafiya boss considers his future‘ in the January 2011 Jane’s Intelligence Review. He was born in Tbilisi in 1937 and the first of his four criminal convictions was for pickpocketing as an adolescent. After an early criminal career in Georgia, he lived and worked across Russia (especially Moscow, the Urals region and Krasnodar and Sochi in the North Caucasus) and in Uzbekistan. By the late 1980s, when Gorbachev’s reforms were opening up new economic opportunities, Usoyan had moved into the profitable field of forcing black marketeers to pay protection money. This helped ensure that he had the muscle, the connections and the wealth to prosper in the post-Soviet era. At a time when many other criminal organisations were adopting a more diffuse, networked structure, though, Usoyan’s — like many other Caucasian criminals’ — was a more conventional gang, built around kinship, personal connections and a clear hierarchy.
His operations extended across central and southern Russia and he forged connections with key figures within the Solntsevo criminal network — including Vyacheslav ‘Yaponchik’ Ivankov — as well as ‘Petrik’, head of the Mazutkinskaya network and a whole string of local kingpins, including ‘Dato Tashkent’ (in the Urals), ‘Karo’ (in Nizhny Tagil), ‘Trofa’ (in Ekaterinburg) and ‘Yakutenok’ (in Perm). In the process, he became one of the holders of the common fund known as the obshchak, in effect an underworld banker. A high-point of his influence in that time came, ironically, with an arrest, when police swooped on a gathering he hosted in Sochi which had brought together some 350 senior criminals, ostensibly to pay their respects to murdered vor v zakone ‘Sinok’ Safaryan, but in practice as one of the regular skhodki or underworld gatherings at which deals are made, disputes settled and policies agreed. All the attendees were released for lack of evidence of any crime, but the public recognition that he was hosting such an event seemed to consolidate his standing within the underworld.
However, in the later 1990s, his position was in peril. In 1996, he was arrested and charged with the murder of rival kingpin Amiran Pyatigorsky,. He was acquitted, but Pyatogorsky’s death was just part of a wider war with ‘Rudik’, an Armenian gang leader eager to loosen Usoyan’s grip on the Caucasus region of Mineralnye Vody. Without letting up on more direct attacks (Usoyan survived an assassination attempt in summer 1998), Rudik also turned to his rival’s stewardship of the obshchak, accusing him of concealing profits and mismanagement. Usoyan’s misfortune was that in 1998, a financial crisis saw the ruble devalued and much of the obshchak was in the form of government bonds, once seemingly safe but now equally devalued. Usoyan’s former allies turned on him. Some reports even suggest that for a while his status as a vor was revoked. Meanwhile, more of his lieutenants were killed, including ‘Boitsov’ (who was his representative to Irkutsk) and ‘Sergei the Siberian.’
Meanwhile, Usoyan’s efforts to assert his authority in St Petersburg also became problematic. He fell foul of Vladimir Kumarin, the convicted Russian criminal later known as Vladimir Barsukov, a key figure within the St Petersburg Tambov network sentenced in 2009 to 14 years in prison for organised crime-related fraud and money laundering. In the early 1990s, while based in Moscow, Usoyan had been made the smotryashchy, the ‘overseer’ responsible for monitoring the activities of the gangs in St Petersburg. By 1994, though, Usoyan’s relationship with the underworld in Russia’s second city was becoming tense. According to some,this was because he was trying to use his role to assert personal authority over the gangs of St Petersburg. According to others, it was because Kumarin was eager to oust any control from Moscow. Either way. Kumarin began cultivating contacts with the St Petersburg political and security elite and using them to consolidate the Tambov grouping’s autonomy. The local criminal ‘Kostya the Tomb’ acted for a while as an intermediary, but ultimately sided with Tambov against Usoyan, and by 1998, he had essentially lost any foothold in St Petersburg.
In some ways, though, these perils were the making of Usoyan. The prospect of a widening mob war that could tear the Russian underworld apart began to worry many senior criminals and they began trying to broker some accord. Furthermore, Usoyan himself realised he needed allies and adopted a new strategy. Where once he had looked for subordinates, now he looked for allies and partners. By the end of 1999, though holding more skhodky — even though many were broken up by the police — and a ceasefire was agreed with Rudik.
While connected with Georgian crime groups in Tbilisi, for almost three decades, Usoyan’s operations were by then based in Moscow and the Russian North Caucasus. He did not really fit within the Georgians, especially once they came to be dominated by Tariel Oniani (also known as ‘Tariel Mulukhov’ or ‘Taro’), a fugitive from Georgia and Spain who is at present in a Russian prison but still controls most of his criminal empire through lieutenants. Instead, he was able to identify and exploit a gap in the ‘market’. He could appeal to the other so-called ‘mountaineers’ from the Caucasus region, and it is striking how multi-ethnic his network was. This re-invention of Usoyan’s criminal organization in the 2000s meant that it could offer a place for criminals of every race, region and specialism. The leaders of the network range from Usoyan’s kin (including his nephews, the vory v zakone ‘Yura Lazarovsky’ and ‘Miron’), Georgians such as ‘Lasha Rustavsky’, ‘Edik Ostetrina’ and his son (and, at 26, possibly the youngest vor) Sergei, Russians, Armenians and even some Central Asians.
By 2009, with tensions across the Russian underworld increased by the impact of the global and local financial crisis, Usoyan’s feud with Oniani 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, even after the killing of one of his right-hand men, Gela Tsertsvadze, in November 2008. At least to give the appearance of conciliation, he agreed to allow the veteran vor Ivankov to try and arbitrate a dispute with Usoyan over gambling businesses, but recurring reports have suggested that when it became clear that Ivankov — who, after all, knew Usoyan — was inclining towards ruling in favour of his rival, it is probable that Oniani had him killed in July 2009.
On 19 July 2010, Oniani was sentenced to 10 years in maximum-security prison for his role in the kidnap in Moscow in 2009 of fellow Georgian businessman ‘Johnny’ Manadze. That he was was arrested is perhaps unsurprising considering the he was one of the highest-profile gangsters in Russia, wanted on an Interpol red warrant. More surprising was that he was held (and refused bail, even when his lawyers offered 15 million rubles, equivalent to US$ 480,000), tried and convicted to a serious sentence. There is a widespread belief that in part the state followed through with the conviction precisely in the hope that this would defuse a mob war. However, Oniani still manages to run his criminal empire from prison, so the prospects for underworld peace are still distant.