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Hard Times For Russia's Crime Bosses

The author says gangs are beginning to clash over criminal resources at a time when they have abandoned the old customs that helped manage these rivalries in the past.
The author says gangs are beginning to clash over criminal resources at a time when they have abandoned the old customs that helped manage these rivalries in the past.
On October 9, Russian gangster Vyacheslav Ivankov, better known as "Yaponchik" or "Little Jap," finally died of wounds from an unknown sniper attack in July. It is difficult to mourn Yaponchik's passing.

One of the highest-profile members of the traditional criminal fraternity of the "vory v zakone" (thieves within the code), Yaponchik was a violent, brutal man with a string of convictions in the Soviet Union, Russia, and the United States. His death highlights rising tensions within the Russian underworld, a product of both long-term divisions and the more immediate pressures of the economic slowdown.

The power of the "vory v zakone," a violent underworld culture that arose and spread within the gulag labor camps, has been in decline since the fall of the Soviet Union. The new economic opportunities gave rise to a generation of businessman-criminals known as "avtoritety" (authorities). Their empires blended wholly illegal activities such as drug dealing and human trafficking with essentially legitimate enterprise. The avtoritety could work with the vory, but the cultures of the smart-suited entrepreneurs and the tattooed career criminals were worlds apart.

Indeed, Yaponchik's career demonstrated that fact. In 1991, he was released after 11 years in prison and welcomed by fellow vory at a lavish party. However, even then, he was also seen as a potentially destabilizing new player in a city whose mob bosses were already looking to a post-Soviet future. As a result, an underworld summit hit on the solution of offering him an honorable role that also removed him from Moscow. He was charged with bringing émigré Russian organized crime in the United States into the wider networks of Russian crime.

Vyacheslav Ivankov, aka "Yaponchik"
He arrived in New York in 1992 and soon accomplished this -- establishing fruitful connections between Russian-based and émigré gangs that continue today. He was arrested in 1995, though, convicted for a $3.5 million extortion plot, and then extradited to Russia in 2004 to face charges of murdering two Turks. However, he was controversially acquitted and walked free.

Awkward Fit

Meanwhile, Yaponchik had become even more of an anachronism. Although connected with Solntsevo, the largest and most powerful network within the Russian underworld, he did not fit well with the avtoritety. If anything, in terms of temperament and pedigree he was closer to the "bandity," the bandits or less-powerful and less-sophisticated gangs that cling to the old staples of organized crime -- drugs, protection racketeering, loan-sharking, and the like -- rather than the corruption, embezzlement, financial crimes, and other white-collar criminality favored by the avtoritety.

Yaponchik fell back on one of the classic roles of a vor v zakone: arbitrating mob disputes. As such, he would normally have been regarded to have had immunity from assassination so long as he observed the neutrality of his role. That he was murdered suggests that the codes and the balance of power that have governed the Russian underworld are coming under pressure.

Tensions between the avtoritety and the bandity mattered little while times were good. Rivalries between gangs are part of the daily ebb and flow of the Russian underworld. But in recent years they have been kept at a manageable level, both because the state under Putin made it clear it was unwilling to tolerate the overt gangsterism of the Yeltsin years and also because the booming Russian economy ensured there were new opportunities for all.

Simmering Tensions

However, the financial slowdown has had a serious impact on the underworld. It has hit the avtoritety hardest. Unwilling to abandon their prosperous lifestyles, many are seeking to move back into more overt gangsterism. After all, businesses such as drug dealing, prostitution, and organized robbery remain profitable. As a result, the avtoritety are intruding on the turfs of the bandits, and the balance of power is shifting. Gangs are beginning to clash over criminal resources at a time when they have abandoned the old customs that helped manage these rivalries in the past.

Not only are organized-crime rates on the rise, but tensions are rising as long-time bandity and returning avtoritety compete. Combined with Russia's growing role as both a market and conduit for Afghan heroin and the government's recent decision to criminalize most gambling, this means that lucrative new opportunities have opened up for criminals at the very time when their fingers are closest to their triggers and their need for new income is greatest. Yaponchik seems to have been embroiled in the tense and often violent dispute between two Georgian-born godfathers over the heroin trade, and his murder may have been to prevent him ruling in favor of one of them.

It is therefore possible to speculate that Yaponchik's murder highlights not just the decay of the old vor rules of behavior in Russia. Nor is it simply a product of a long-running dispute between two gangs. Instead, it may be a sign of growing pressures within the underworld that are driving it toward a new round of turf wars, perhaps one even to rival those of the "wild '90s."

Mark Galeotti is the academic chair of the Center for Global Affairs at New York University and author of "In Moscow's Shadows," a blog on security, crime and corruption in Russia. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL