Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Power Vertical

Gangsters And Fascists And Separatists -- Oh My!

The self-proclaimed governor of the Donetsk region, Pavel Gubarev (first row, third from left), as a Russian nationalist.
The self-proclaimed governor of the Donetsk region, Pavel Gubarev (first row, third from left), as a Russian nationalist.
A multibillion-dollar project is announced to construct a bridge across the Kerch Strait. Police raid a meeting of Georgian gangsters at a swanky downtown Moscow restaurant. And an emissary from the powerful Solntsevo crime syndicate is reportedly dispatched to Simferopol.

What do all these things have in common? They're all elements of a shadowy struggle among organized crime groups to get their claws into Crimea.

Vladimir Putin's annexation of Ukraine's Black Sea peninsula has turned the international order on its ear. And as longtime Kremlin-watcher and security expert Mark Galeotti wrote this week, it also promises to upend the delicate balance in the post-Soviet underworld -- with possibly violent results.

"The underworld status quo is relatively brittle, full of hungry upstarts and deep feuds, as well as unbalanced by new money flowing into some gangs' coffers, thanks to the growing and massive trade in Afghan heroin," Galeotti, a professor at New York University and a co-host of the Power Vertical Podcast, wrote this week in "The Moscow Times."

"Further competition in Crimea could shatter the already fragile underworld peace."

And it's not like Crimea was exactly gangster-free even before the Russian annexation. A combination of official neglect from Kyiv, hostility between local law enforcement and the central Ukrainian government, and the Black Sea Fleet's role in various smuggling operations combined to make the peninsula a magnet for post-Soviet organized crime.

"Crimea's political and economic structures were infamously interconnected with its underworld. Simferopol's Salem and Bashmaki crime gangs of the 1990s ran protection rackets, smuggled drugs, and assassinated each other, Galeotti wrote.

Indeed, Crimea's Moscow-installed de facto Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov is widely reported to be a mid-level gangster -- known as "the Goblin" -- with the Salem gang.

And now, major projects like the $5.5 billion Kerch Strait bridge project connecting Crimea to Russia's Krasnodar Krai and plans to build a new casino and resort complex promise to present the most lucrative opportunity for the criminal underworld since, well, since the Sochi Olympics.

And the Russian authorities seem determined to make sure "their" anointed gangsters -- like Moscow's powerful Solntsevo group -- get the largest piece of the action.

In a recent post on his blog, Galeotti noted how on May 24 police broke up a meeting of Georgian gangsters at a swanky restaurant in downtown Moscow -- an apparent attempt to warn them to stay out of Crimea. "It’s futile to try and keep the Georgians out of Crimea, but I imagine that a pernicious alliance of ethnic Russian mobsters and the government will try to minimize their role there," he wrote.

Given the fragile peace in the underworld in the wake of the Moscow assassination of the legendary crime boss Aslan Usoyan in January 2013, it looks like Crimea's new status provides all the conditions for a mob war.

And if Crimea looks like a playground for gangsters, in eastern Ukraine it's springtime for Russian ultranationalists and neo-Nazis. 

Pavel Gubarev, the self-styled "people's governor" of Donetsk, was a member of the ultranationalist group Russian National Unity, whose symbol bears a disturbing resemblance to a swastika.  

The far-right paramilitary organization was founded in 1990 by nationalist leader Aleksandr Barkashov, and its members have been implicated in violent crimes against ethnic minorities and in the 2009 killings of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasia Baburova. 

Aleksandr Borodai, a Russian citizen who is the "prime minister" of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, was an editor and remains a contributor to the far-right -- and often anti-Semitic -- newspaper "Zavtra," founded by ultranationalist Aleksandr Prokhanov in the 1990s. The newspaper's website now serves as a recruiting platform for mercenaries fighting in eastern Ukraine. 

Prokhanov, a fringe figure in the 1990s, has enjoyed a resurgence with the Ukrainian crisis, with his articles appearing regularly in the mass-circulation pro-Kremlin daily "Izvestia.' 

The Donetsk People's Republic's self-styled "defense minister," Igor Girkin, aka "Strelkov," is also a contributor to "Zavtra"  Girkin, who Ukrainian authorities claim is an agent with the Russian Defense Ministry's Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), also reportedly served as a mercenary in conflicts in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Transdniester, and Chechnya.

And Gubarev, Borodai, and Girkin are just the tip of the iceberg. Moscow-based political analyst Vladimir Pribylovsky told RFE/RL's Russian Service this week that the conflict in eastern Ukraine is serving as a magnet for Russian nationalists of various stripes.

Russia may be threatening to cut off Ukraine's gas supply. But it is busy exporting its mafia and neo-Nazis to its southern neighbor.

-- Brian Whitmore

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to the Power Vertical Podcast on June 6 when I will discuss the themes raised in this post with co-host Mark Galeotti and guest Merkhat Sharipzhan.

Tags: crimea,Russian organized crime,Power Vertical blog,Russian nationalists,eastern Ukraine

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Idrian from: Surrey, BC
June 05, 2014 23:33
Do you fight Russian ultranationalists and neo-Nazis (itself a contradiction in regards to Soviet history; bet these guys still view Vlasov as a traitor) with Ukrainian nationalists?
In Response

by: Bill
June 09, 2014 10:27
Truth be told, Vlasov and his forces didn't have the overall negative baggage as Bandera and his goons.
In Response

by: Idrian from: Surrey, BC
June 09, 2014 21:51
In what way? Both are accused of collaboration with Nazis, one more than the other, in fact.

by: American Tolerast
June 06, 2014 00:38
These people are merely sick as opposed to evil, and the only danger they pose it to each other. The appropriate outside paradigm isn't war, be it hot or cold, but rather quarantine. Keep them isolated, let the disease run its course, then offer to help the survivors in a decade or two. Cold-hearted but necessary. Worst case scenario, China will have some badly needed empty real estate with perhaps a few stragglers who would objectively benefit from the civilizing Chinese influence.

by: Danny
June 06, 2014 00:53
"It’s futile to try and keep the Georgians [gangsters] out of Crimea" - why so?
In Response

by: Brian Whitmore from: Prague
June 06, 2014 14:59
Good question! And I actually asked it in the podcast that follows up this post. Mark Galeotti gave his usual comprehensive and succinct answer. So give a listen!
In Response

by: Biill
June 09, 2014 10:30
Too bad Mark has been involved with some unacademic propaganda, like the piece he did with someone affiliated with Khodor's org.

by: Sun Dancer from: USA
June 06, 2014 05:58
It's a lot of speculation, propaganda masquerading as news.

If you are looking for crimes, no need for Minority Report-type speculation, just report on what Nazional Guard is doing bombing, shooting, burning civilians.

But oh yeah - it doesn't fit your lying narrative, so speculative propaganda it is ....

by: PermReader
June 06, 2014 19:01
Obama worked on Putin`s personality for years filled with conseit shallow thinking and weakness.Paraphrasing : If there is not the figure in the white House than anything is permitted.The responsible Western leaders like R.Reagan(not the today` puppets) can return the situation back to the stability.

Latest Podcasts

About This Blog

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or