It seems churlish to be cynical about Russian police operations against organized crime, but my curiosity has been piqued by news of a recent operation against purported gangsters in Ekaterinburg, that pearl of Siberia (given that pearls are really spheres of dried gunk formed by irritation and aggravation..). The news was that on 1 September, the full might and majesty of the law–the local organized crime department, backed by a SOBR SWAT team–descended on a cafe to disrupt a skhodka, a sit-down, attended by fully 48 luminaries of the local underworld, there to discuss “a new division of the criminal market.” They included residents of Ekaterinburg, Ufa, Chelyabinsk and Norilsk,although most were ethnic Azeris. Furthermore, the majoroty were apparently members of the gang led by Temuri Mirzoev, also known as “Timur Sverdlovskii”, a nephew of the infamous (and deceased) Aslan Usoyan (“Ded Khasan”) and a member of his network, now led by his cousin Dmitry Chanturia. (Mirzoev, incidentally, was one of the Khasan-connected criminal kingpins specifically targeted by the US Treasury in 2012.)
So far, so straightforward–although an operation so directly targeting the Network-Formerly-Known-As-Khasan’s (seriously, no one is calling it Chanturia’s) suggests some interesting dynamics within the underworld-upperworld power relationship.
However, what gives this an added dimension is that in Ekaterinburg there is taking place that other election, the one that says something interesting but that does not involve Navalny, in which wildcard Evgeny Roizman–anti-drug campaigner, neighborhood paterfamilias, ex-jailbird, art historian, former Duma deputy, community arbiter and alleged one-and-maybe-present gangster–is standing against United Russia’s placeman. Perhaps because the rambunctious Roizman doesn’t have Navalny’s finely-calibrated soundbite skills, perhaps because Ekaterinburg is far from the Moscow press corps, it seems that the authorities are willing to be a little more rough-knuckled in their campaign against him.
There are persistent claims against him that he was associated with the Uralmash crime gang which held sway in Ekaterinburg back in the rough 1990s (and in the 1980s he served part of a two-year jail term on theft, fraud and arms charges). Likewise, his “City Without Drugs” movement at times relied on threat and violence to fight pushers and drive people into cold turkey. Others have claimed–I’ve not seen evidence, but was told this by people who have professional insights into this–that “City Without Drugs” was used in the early days as a front instead to drive out the gangs which used to dominate the city’s narcotics trade so that new operators could move in.
Whatever the truth of these claims, it seems highly unlikely that Roizman is involved in anything of the sort now,or it is a pretty safe bet that he’s be behind barbed wire. Nonetheless, that doesn’t stop the smear campaign, nest exemplified by the recent TV program “Moment of Truth” which called the “City Without Drugs” rehab centers slave-labor sweatshops and, perhaps most strikingly, ran interviews with Sverdlovsk oblast police officials accusing him of active links with organized crime. Talking heads don’t make for great TV, though, so to leaven the charmingly suggestive backdrop montage of still images of Roizman, syringes, thugs and metal bars, they obligingly also provided audiotapes, apparently from wiretaps on the phones of local gangster kingpins, identified as Georgian vory v zakone (“thieves within the law”), who claimed to be on good terms with him and anticipated to do well if he won the election, as they wanted to control “cash flows” in the city. The Sverdlovsk oblast police subsequently publicly stood behind the accusations.
This is just the latest stage in a “stop Roizman” campaign. In May, a criminal case was opened against his rehab clinic over allegations that patients were abused and unlawful imprisoned. In July, the FSB launched an investigation into the “disclosure of state secrets” after he filed a complaint about a former prosecutor (who, incidentally, reportedly had transcripts of his phone conversations–the phone tappers have been working overtime in Sverdlovsk). In August, 45 icons were confiscated from his museum and an associated restoration workshop raided, following allegations that they had been stolen. Now prosecutors are opening an investigation into Roizman’s “links with ethnic organized crime groups.”
Never mind the bizarre spectacle of investigations prompted not by actual police work, but by police work being leaked on TV. Or the willingness to compromise apparent ongoing investigations into serious organized crime figures to smear a political candidate. Or the apparent inability of the police to tell Georgians from Azeris. While at present Navalny seems to be being treated with kid gloves, the real application of “administrative means” in its rawest form is taking place in the Urals. And the irony is that I suspect it is prompted not by orders from the Kremlin but by a local elite that is terrified of how a figure like Roizman would upset their cozy understandings and deals. In other words, what looks like an extension of the Power Vertical is quite the opposite, a manifestation of the increasing concern of local elites to protect their own positions, come what may, the survivalist tendencies that emerge when the center seems weak on potentially impermanent.