Russian Crime Today

arrestThe latest in an occasional series of longer articles of mine on Russian crime has recently been published. The articles, for RFE/RL’s Russian-language service, are then being published in English by the Henry Jackson Society. Last year, I wrote Crime and Crimea: Criminals as Allies and Agents, considering the extent to which organised criminal structures were involved in the Russian takeover and how they were affected by the annexation of the peninsula (here in Russian, here in English). This most recent piece, Tough Times for Tough People: Crime and Russia’s Economic Crisis, instead uses a series of individual cases to explore instead the impact of sanctions and hardship on organised crime inside Russia, both the losers and the winners (here in Russian, here in English). A third, future article will explore how corruption is changing.

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‘Zap’ Soghoyan, Post-Soviet Gangsters in the Czech Republic, and the new Criminal Merchant-Adventurers

He doesn't look worried. Sadly, he probably had good reason...

He doesn’t look worried. Sadly, he probably had good reason…

The conviction in absentia of Andranik Soghoyan in Prague Municipal Court in many ways exemplifies the place and role of Eurasian organized crime in Europe today.

Soghoyan (also known as ‘Zap’ or ‘Zaporozhets’, after the aged Russian car) is an Armenian gangster who has been convicted of the attempted murder of another Armenian in 2007. According to the indictment, he and his accomplices Gilani and Magomed Aliyev hired Ukrainian Timur Tretyakov, an assassin of bloody inclinations but poor aim. The would-be hitman stabbed one wrong man in Wenceslas Square (fortunately his life was saved by medical intervention). Then Soghoyan’s henchmen Arsen Kakosyan and Arsen Arakelyan gave him directions to the target’s house and a gun, respectively. Tretyakov managed to shoot and kill another innocent bystander, in this case a man who drove the same kind of car as the target.

Gilani Aliyev—a Chechen—was acquitted but otherwise Soghoyan’s accomplices received various sentences, with Tretyakov being sentenced to 22 years in prison. Soghoyan himself was charged with organizing a murder and blackmail. He was acquitted twice by the lower court over doubts about the only informant, himself a convicted extortionist, and the ambiguity of wiretap evidence (at which point he wisely left the Czech Republic), but convicted in the municipal court on appeal.

So, what does this case demonstrate?

1. Oranges are not the only fruit, but they are increasingly common. The 45-year-old Soghoyan is part of the ranks of the vory v zakone, the ‘thieves within the code’ who once represented the elite of Soviet organized crime, but is increasingly an empty honorific more often bought than earned. Soghoyan appears to have been ‘crowned’ a vor in Moscow in 1994, but nonetheless he seems not to be a traditionalist. His 20-year-old nephew was reportedly made a vor at a ceremony in Gyumri (Soghoyan’s home base) last year: there would have been no way such a youth would have been ‘crowned’ in the old days. Instead he is an apelsyn, an ‘orange’ as those gangsters who simply paid their way into the vor hierarchy are disparagingly known by the traditionalists. It seems that Soghoyan, like many gangsters from the Caucasus, is happy to retain the forms of the old vorovskoi mir (‘thieves’ world’) but not its rules. This is a general pattern; while the language of the vory survives, its forms do not, and the modern Eurasian criminal is either an avtoritet criminal-businessman or, like Soghoyan, a gangster increasingly hard to distinguish from his counterparts in Italy, Mexico or almost anywhere else.

2. There are gang, ethnic and phylum divisions. Ultimately, Russian criminals deal with Chechens, Uzbeks with Italians, Chinese with Mexicans. Nonetheless, within the global criminal economy there clearly are affiliations and groupings. Within Eurasian organized crime, there is a growing differential between the Slavic and Caucasus (‘mountaineer’) criminals, something all the more significant since Aslan Usoyan’s death earlier this year. Soghoyan, an Armenian, relied not just on other Armenians, but also the Chechen Aliyevs.

3. Russian organized crime, Russian-speaking organized crime, Eurasian organized crime… Soghoyan was an Armenian, but nonetheless some accounts have made this a ‘Russian organized crime’ story. Of course, there is Russian OC in the Czech Republic, and it may well be growing, but it is much more a criminal business, the world of the avtoritety rather than the bandits: wholesale drug trafficking, money laundering and the like. The rather clumsy term “Russian-speaking organized crime” gets used (is it true? I’d be surprised if Soghoyan talked to his fellow Armenians in Russian), with “Eurasian organized crime” favored by others, but it begins to raise the question of whether or not we can still talk about everyone from Belarusian smugglers and Russian avtoritety to Georgian gangsters and Tajik drug traffickers in the same breath. It’s something I’m thinking about as I write an Adelphi Paper on this, and just as “Post-Soviet organized crime” has an increasingly antiquated sound, I feel that the commonalities created by a shared political and economic model are of diminishing explanatory value.

4. Whatever you call it, it is a significant problem in Europe in general, Central Europe in particular. The initial onrush of the 1990s created a predictable moral panic, and not without reason. This was the age of the bandits, a sudden influx of gangster gangs turbocharged by seemingly inexhaustible economic resources and a guaranteed haven at home. However, the most aggressive inroads were beaten off, sometimes quickly, and we saw a rollback of Russian (etc) criminal power in Central Europe, Italy, the Baltic States.

Since then, though, they are back, even though with a new model gangsterism: has as merchant-adventurers rather than conquistadors. The Russians, Ukrainians, Armenians and so forth have sifted in sometimes as predators but more often offering criminal services—drugs, women, money-laundering, computer hacking, etc—to indigenous gangs and local populations. The overt violence, indeed the overt gangsterism overall, is far, far less in evidence. Even if we take this case, Soghoyan was targeting a fellow Armenian in Prague who had not paid over $500,000 the gangster felt he was due. It was also an attempt to intimidate the local Chechen criminals, or at least to strengthen the Aliyevs’ position within them. (Which raises the question of quite who was using whom…) In other words, this was a crime primarily within the Eurasian community, which only touched a Czech because Tretyakov was such an incompetent killer.

Otherwise, the Eurasian criminals tend to be much less obvious, much more prone to be the facilitators, suppliers and partners of local criminals. Of course, that doesn’t make them any less dangerous, but rather than their danger is measured as much as anything else through how they empower other gangs…

Talking about Russian organized crime in Prague, March 19

Invite Mark Galeotti

With post-Soviet (Armenian) organized crime boss Andranik Soghoyan being convicted in absentia to 22 years in prison in Prague Municipal Court, and with the commercial rivalry over the Temelin nuclear power initiative leading to inevitable dark mutterings about Russian criminal and espionage activities in the Czech Republic, I’m especially pleased to be speaking about the myths and the realities of Russian organized crime in Prague in a couple of weeks’ time. It’s a public event organized by NYU’s Prague Center and PIDEC, the Prague Institute for Democracy, Economics & Culture, and is open to all (please RSVP if you plan to attend, but the email address on the poster may not be working, in which case please use pidec.nyu@gmail.com).

I’ll cover developments in Russia a little, but mainly look at how Russian and Russia-based organized crime has — and has not — spread internationally, and what its real relationships with the intelligence services are. Considering that I think Prague and the Czech Republic risk becoming a renewed focus of their operations, it seems to be a timely opportunity to discuss these guys.

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