Does top mobster's murder signal a return to Russian mob wars?

Organized crime boss Aslan Usoyan was shot in broad daylight in Moscow yesterday, leading some to ask if Russia's notorious mafias are reemerging on Russian streets.

Russian State TV Channel Rossiya One/AP
This undated video grab provided by Russian state television shows Russian mobster Aslan Usoyan, left, one of Russia's top crime lords who was gunned down Wednesday, in Moscow.

One of Russia's top organized crime bosses was gunned down in a classic contract hit on a Moscow street Wednesday, raising fears that Russia's notorious mafia gangs – which seemed to fade from view during the Vladimir Putin era – may be about to erupt onto the streets again.

Aslan Usoyan, whose nickname was "Grandpa (Dyed) Khasan," was shot in broad daylight as he exited his favorite downtown Moscow restaurant. He was killed by a chillingly professional assassin who had rented an apartment across the street months earlier, left behind an untraceable military-style sniper rifle and six spent cartridges, and who managed to dodge multiple security cameras when he made his escape.

Mr. Usoyan had been one of the last of the fabled Soviet-era underworld breed known as vori v zakone, or "thieves-in-law," whose gangs virtually ruled Russia's fledgling banking and business communities during the wild 1990s, and whose bloody turf wars spread mayhem around Russia and, to some extent, throughout the world.

Russia's hardened crime reporters and other experts were hardly shocked by the killing, which was the third attempt on Usoyan's life. But as they mulled over the event Thursday they appeared to disagree over what it means and what might come next.

A part of Russian life?

Some argue it's the end of an era, and that the old violence-prone mobsters of Usoyan's ilk are being supplanted by more publicly invisible, but also more competent, "technocratic" criminals who are internationally mobile and well-connected with state and law enforcement bodies.

Others say the old-style mafia, including ethnic gangs from around the former Soviet Union, remain active. They say that the henchmen of Usoyan, an ethnic Kurd who hailed from Georgia, will exact bloody revenge against the murderers who, according to one of the foremost Western experts on Russia's crime scene, Professor Mark Galeotti of New York University, could be any one of three key Georgian or Azerbaijani mob bosses.

All experts agree that organized crime, which slipped from the headlines after the tough-talking KGB veteran Vladimir Putin came to power more than a decade ago, is still very much a part of Russian life. Most say the trough they feed at has expanded in recent years thanks to the growing flow of heroin from war-torn Afghanistan, and the golden spigot of corrupt construction contracts from big state projects – especially preparations for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. The Russian government has so far spent $35 billion on the Olympics, many times more than any Olympic Games in history have ever cost.

In a brief public statement, Russia's top police body, the State Investigative Committee, acknowledged the bare details of Usoyan's murder, and said it was considering "various motives for the crime, including those connected with the criminal activities of the victim and possible conflicts with representatives of the same medium."

From street crime to graft

A poll released earlier this month by the state-run VTsIOM public opinion agency appears to illustrate that public concerns about street crime and violence – which were paramount in the 1990s – have shifted to worries about official graft and government red tape. In the survey conducted last month, about 50 percent of Russians described "corruption and bureaucratism" as the country's chief problem, while just 26 percent named "crime."

"We still have the mafia, but it has changed," says Yevgeny Chernousov, a lawyer, former colonel, and criminal investigator for the Interior Ministry, which oversees Russia's police forces.

"The focus of public concern appears to have shifted to corruption, but in fact the criminal mafia and corruption have merged. Organized crime has penetrated into the state and business community to such an extent that it's difficult to tell them apart. They are completely integrated," Mr. Chernousov says.

"Criminal groups are part of business, and some of them have official posts in the system as well. From time to time there are conflicts over spheres of influence, and we hear about killings like this.... The old generation observed certain rules, but these new ones, the 'young wolves,' are different. They want their own share and they are far more dangerous," he adds.

Chernousov says that Russian law enforcement dropped the ball on fighting organized crime in the 1990s, largely because professional cops like himself were underpaid and underappreciated, so they went out into the world to seek more lucrative employment. But other experts put a more sinister spin on the failures of Russian police forces to rein-in the mafia or prevent it from burrowing into the establishment.

"Law enforcement knows who all the mafia bosses are, studies them closely, but takes no serious steps against them," says Mikhail Delyagin, director of the independent Institute of Globalization Problems in Moscow.

"I recall only one recent case where police seized a mafia trove of cash, known as obshchak, but immediately after that then-president Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree cancelling the police priority on fighting organized crime," Mr. Delyagin says.

"As the old 'thieves-in-law' die out, the younger generation is working within the state, using it to their advantage.... Our state is not dedicated to fighting against organized crime, but actually has become part of it. With the economic crisis and the reduction of profits from oil export, these turf wars are likely to be on the rise," says Delyagin.

New beginning?

Many analysts argue that the new face of the mafia precludes any rerun of the violent street battles that marked mafia conflicts in the 1990s.

"Criminals bosses get killed everywhere," says Dmitry Orlov, director of the independent Agency for Political and Economic Communications, who usually reflects a pro-Kremlin viewpoint.

"Struggles among them go on, but I am sure there will be no wars like we experienced in the 1990s – no massive conflicts, no terror on the streets, no threat to general law-and-order," Mr. Orlov says. "Compared to those old days, the strength of law enforcement is much higher and the aggressiveness of criminal bands toward the public has greatly reduced."

But Stanislav Belkovsky, president of the independent Institute of National Strategy in Moscow and a veteran observer of Russia's criminal world, says that a new division of power and spoils among mafia clans is probably at hand.

"The murder of Usoyan signals the beginning of a new wave of mafia wars," Mr. Belkovsky says.

"Usoyan was at the center of a very important criminal network. Now the spheres of interest will be divided up again," Belkovsky says. "The influence of the mafia hasn't changed since the 1990s. What's new is the role of law enforcement in their activities, which grew considerably under Putin. Maybe they tend to use more outwardly legitimate forms of struggle most of the time, but that doesn't mean they've abandoned their old methods – which is to simply kill off their rivals."

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