The ‘Prophylactic Conversation’ and the management of Russian organised crime: the Ekaterinburg example

gangstersgrave

Ekaterinburg still seems to have the best crop of gangster gravestones

Back when Yuri Andropov headed the KGB, the Soviet political police replaced, or at least supplemented the blunter instruments of earlier times with more subtle and insidious ones. One such was the profilakticheskii razgovor, the ‘prophylactic conversation.’ Someone identified as a possible problem – talking too openly critically about the Party, say, or trying to get the trade union actually to represent workers’ interests – would be invited to the local KGB office, just for a chat.

Depending on the quality and delicacy of the interlocutor, often no threats would be made, no accusations advanced. It would be just that, a chat. How’s the job? I hear your kid is applying to university next year, that must be exciting. I hope your grandmother’s illness clears up soon. But of course, in a system when a severe and spiteful state controls everything, both sides knew that every word was a threat. A good job could be replaced with a bad one; a child could get rejected from university; medical care could be withheld. Few people have the ruthlessness with themselves or others to be heroes in such circumstances. Andropov’s dictum was, after all, maximum effect for minimal force.

Increasingly, this has become a tool also used with organised crime. The state does not control organised crime (let alone vice versa), but the relationship is complicated. Much of the time, it genuinely fights it, but at other times it recognises a degree of symbiosis. This is not just about the many interconnections, especially at the local level, between political, business and underworld elites. It is also because, like post-war Japan for most of its history, there is something of a sense that organised crime is better that its disorganised counterpart.

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The “Shulaya Enterprise” organised crime bust in New York

FBIA big case opened yesterday in New York, with 33 people being charged with membership of a Eurasian organised crime group (the “Shulaya Enterprise”) and a wide range of charges, from murder-for-hire and gambling fraud to, intriguingly enough, stealing 10,000 pounds of chocolates (gangsters after my own heart). I duplicate the press release below and look forward to following the case, but a few points leapt out at once:

Razhden Shulaya, also known as “Roma” and “Brother,” the vor v zakone (not “zakonei”) considered to be the boss of the outfit, was arrested in Lithuania as part of a major crack-down on Georgian gangsters in 2013. I note now that he has been living in Edgewater, NJ. I’ll be curious to hear how a guy not only arrested in Europe but well known previously in St Petersburg as a protégé of major crime figure Zakhary Kalashov and his smotryashchyi or “watcher” in that city, got from a Lithuanian holding cell to the States…

The not-so-Russian-“Russians”: This is called a “Russian Crime Syndicate” but the boss is Georgian, and a quick glance through the names of the accused shows a mix of Georgian, Russian, Armenian and even Central Asian names, with Georgians very much predominating. This is characteristic of modern Eurasian organised crime groups in the States, in particular, but it is worth stepping beyond the ROC cliché. I appreciate this is just a press release, but still there’s no harm in a press release being accurate. (And don’t get me started on the mythical “Brothers’ Circle”…)

Imagination is one of these gangs’ hallmarks; as I told Ben Weiser of the NYT, I was not taken aback by the more outré gambits such as “a scheme to defraud casinos with a hacking device that predicted the behaviour of particular models of electronic slot machines.” Rather, “what surprises me actually is they were still involved in the traditional types of crime.” Instead of trying to compete in crowded and fiercely-defended markets such as drug-dealing on the streets, these gangs often seek to identify new criminal opportunities, especially involving fraud and technology.

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Crimintern: How the Kremlin uses Russia’s criminal networks in Europe

C9s92ljW0AAhnPtMy latest report for the ECFR is out. While I am waiting for the bidding war for the film rights, I’ll settle for pointing people in its direction – you can download it free here – and offer up the summary:

  • Over the past 20 years, the role of Russian organised crime in Europe has shifted considerably. Today, Russian criminals operate less on the street and more in the shadows: as allies, facilitators and suppliers for local European gangs and continent-wide criminal networks.
  • The Russian state is highly criminalised, and the interpenetration of the criminal ‘underworld’ and the political ‘upperworld’ has led the regime to use criminals from time to time as instruments of its rule.
  • Russian-based organised crime groups in Europe have been used for a variety of purposes, including as sources of ‘black cash’, to launch cyber attacks, to wield political influence, to traffic people and goods, and even to carry out targeted assassinations on behalf of the Kremlin.
  • European states and institutions need to consider RBOC a security as much as a criminal problem, and adopt measures to combat it, including concentrating on targeting their assets, sharing information between security and law-enforcement agencies, and accepting the need to devote political and economic capital to the challenge.

I confess I am pleased with the ‘Russian-based organised crime‘ notion, that I think fills an ontological niche, in that it is clear that there is a difference between those gangs which still have strong connections to Russia — who could as easily be Georgians, or Dagestanis, or whoever — and those who have essentially moved out of the country. It is the former who are especially susceptible to use by the Russian security apparatus, and who genuinely worry me. (And yes, I’m also pleased with the title…)

Russian banks warned of risk of cyberattack: a crime or security concern?

russianhackerRussian banks are being warned by the FSB to prepare for possible cyberattacks. That may seem to be a given in these days of virtual criminality, and follows a recent theft of 2 billion rubles ($31.3 million) from correspondent bank accounts at Russia’s Central Bank, but actually Russian financial institutions have until now had it pretty easy. That’s not least because part of the unwritten deal between the state and the hacking community (along with the need to pitch in when ‘patriots’ are expected to attack some foreign target) is that they are fine so long as they don’t commit their crimes against domestic institutions.
 
However, I wonder if there is also a security dimension here. Just as the Central Bank was involved in recent mobilisation exercises, predicated (rightly) on the fact that any major conflict with the West would also be fought with economic instruments, I wonder how far Moscow is coming to terms with the fact that the one-way ‘political war‘ currently being waged against the West might become a two-way one, at least to a limited extent. Those who live by the hack risk dying by it, too.

Gangster, upstart, folk hero: Rovshan Janiev (Lenkoransky) finally put to rest

Screen Shot 2016-08-21 at 20.56.46Azeri-born gangster Rovshan Janiev, also know as Rovshan Lenkoransky, was killed in an ambush on 17 August in Istanbul, while returning from a trip to Dubai (which, incidentally, seems to have become the Russian/Eurasian gangsters’ haven of choice). His Range Rover was caught in the crossfire of at least two gunmen firing automatic weapons; he was killed, riddled by some twenty bullets, his driver seriously wounded.

Whodunnit?

Who killed him? Heaven knows: there were enough serious people after his blood. Three Azeris and a Turk have apparently been arrested, but who they are and why they carried out the hit remains to be seen.

What made Janiev interesting is that around him cohered a loose coalition of hungry young and youngish gangsters, who felt the relative stability of the post-90s status quo – and the end of the rapid social mobility caused by periodic turf wars and gangland killings – was locking them out of the big time. Janiev ended up challenging Moscow-based godfather Aslan Usoyan, ‘Ded Khazan,’ and may indeed have been behind his attempted assassination in 2010 and/or his successful one in 2013. Certainly Usoyan’s heirs have continued to be on the hunt for him.

However, Janiev’s ambitions and his open desire to overturn the current underworld order also may have led to his becoming a target of Georgian Tariel Oniani (‘Taro’), one of the most powerful and vicious of Moscow’s gangsters, and even the major Slavic gangs. It did not help that he was persistently accused of sometimes cooperating with the Russian security apparatus (presumably the FSB), when they wanted to bring a little indirect pressure to bear.

And as if that were not enough, it is also worth mentioning that three years ago, near enough to the day, one of Janiev’s bitter enemies, Azeri kingpin Alibala Hamidov (‘Goji Baku’) was murdered in Istanbul. This may prove to have been a delayed revenge.

Local hero

With so many people (literally) gunning for him, and a reported $5 million bounty on his head, perhaps the greatest surprise was that Janiev survived as long as he did, especially since according to some accounts of late he had relaxed some of his security precautions. In February 2013, he had been reported as killed, just one of many tall tales around him, but this proved to be a hoax; it seems unlikely history will repeat itself.

However, also striking was the way his funeral back in his home town of Lenkoran saw up to 25,000 attending to pay their respects. In part, this reflects the Robin Hood-like legend of the local boy who was able to protect the Azeri market traders in Moscow from the Russians and the Georgians (which he did, up to a point, and for a price), in part the Azeri who was able to take on those Russians and Georgians (and Armenians) at their own game.

There was more than just romantic appeal involved, though. Azeri businessman Mubariz Mansimov, President of the Palmali Group of Companies, lent his private jet to deliver the body home, and it is clear that Janiev also had connections with elements of Azerbaijan’s business and thus by definition political elite.

Impact back in Russia?

Janiev had stayed out of Russia for years, but had maintained his operations there, especially connected with the produce markets of the city. With him gone, there is every chance that the sporadically-violent struggles to control them will flare up again. Recent arrests hitting Shakhro Molodoi’s organisation have, after all, already created instability in this underworld sector.

Indeed, it is not impossible that Janiev’s death will actually turn out not to have been because of any of his old feuds, but because of the new pressures on the Russian underworld. As times get tight, the competition over those businesses still making money is only getting commensurately tighter, and Janiev may have posthumously discovered.

Russia under pressure: more crime, more petty

Police BadgeAccording to the MVD’s latest figures, January saw total numbers of recorded crime rise by 4.6% on last year’s (to almost 172,000) but the proportion of serious crimes fall by almost 3%. Some quick and preliminary thoughts:

The absolute level of serious crime is still up–yes, it fell as a proportion, but of a total that rose even faster–yet much less so than other crimes. These other crimes tend to be low-level instances of unpremeditated inter-personal violence and petty theft such as shoplifting. In other words, crimes which are often a pretty good indicator of underlying levels of social and economic pressure on the general population.

Last year overall, the crime rate was 8.6% up. In part, I think this reflects continued improvement in actually recording offences, cutting down on so-called “latent crime” (despite all the challenges, there is still progress), but in the main I think this is a genuine rise, even if not quite as high as that figure suggests.

So, does the January figure actually reflect an improvement? Maybe, but looking month-by-month, January tends to be a less “elastic” month anyway, perhaps because of holidays, higher levels of street policing in the main cities, etc. It’s too soon to say for certain, although it is also worth noting that there is considerable anecdotal evidence of a resurgence in petty police corruption because of the direct and indirect economic pressures on them (I talk about this a little here), which could also lead to renewed under-reporting. It will be interesting to see how the February and March figures pan out.

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