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Russia's Gangsters With Convictions

Georgian mafia boss Tariel Mulukhov (Oniani) appears in a Moscow courtroom in June.
Georgian mafia boss Tariel Mulukhov (Oniani) appears in a Moscow courtroom in June.
It is easy to see the Russian underworld as chaotic, lawless in every sense. Of late, it has also looked as though a mob war is looming that could stretch across the vast country and involve the gamut of ethnic gangs -- from Georgians and Kurds to Chechens and Russians. However, as with so much in Russia, the underworld may look entirely unruly but it is in fact governed by a form of "managed anarchy."

This has been illustrated by the outcome of a simmering conflict between Georgian Tariel Oniani and Kurdish crime boss Aslan Usoyan ("Ded Khasan"), the foremost figure within Russia's North Caucasian gangs. Last year, Oniani (also known as Tariel Mulukhov or "Taro") was being talked about in law enforcement circles as a potential "boss of bosses" within the multiethnic Russian underworld. Even those less sanguine about his seemingly irresistible rise feared that his ambitions would spark a mob war comparable to the wild days of the 1990s.

In June 2009, though, Oniani was arrested on kidnapping charges. He was refused bail, even after offering security of 15 million rubles ($500,000). Last month, he was sentenced to 10 years in a maximum-security prison.

Meanwhile, his international criminal empire was being quietly broken up by his fellow godfathers. Some of his criminal enterprises have simply been taken over by rivals. Loyal lieutenants who might have resisted or have tried to help Oniani continue to run his activities from behind bars have been isolated, warned off, or even killed. In March, Vladimir "Lado" Janashiya was killed in France; in May, it was the turn of Malkhaz "Malkhioni" Kition, shot dead in Greece. "Merab Sukhumi" Jangveladze, one of Oniani's most senior remaining lieutenants, has apparently gone underground.

This is more than simply a case of criminal rivals taking advantage of the weakness of a feared rival. It also reflects a tacit, but shared interest between the authorities of the legitimate and illegitimate worlds alike to maintain the status quo.

Upsetting The Status Quo

Oniani had become a destabilizing force. He left Georgia in 2004 when President Mikheil Saakashvili cracked down on the traditional criminal fraternity of the "vory v zakone" (thieves in law) and moved to Spain. The next year, he fled to Russia, where he already had substantial criminal interests, as well as a network of contacts within the ethnic Georgian underworld. He moved aggressively to expand his operations, allegedly involving himself in a range of activities ranging from extortion to illegal gambling.

The killing of mafia boss Vyacheslav "Yaponchik" Ivankov seemed to be a step too far.
He had no qualms about moving into others' turfs and ignoring established mechanisms for resolving disputes with other gangs. He rose rapidly, but acquired enemies as quickly. In particular, he fell foul of Usoyan. By 2009, with tensions across the underworld in any case heightened by the impact of the global and local financial crisis, this feud threatened to explode.

In 2008, Russian gangsters had tried to broker a peace between them and failed, to a large extent because Oniani refused to compromise. At least to give the appearance of conciliation, he agreed to allow old-school vor v zakone Vyacheslav "Yaponchik" Ivankov to try to arbitrate a dispute with Usoyan over gambling businesses. However, when it became clear that Ivankov was inclining toward Usoyan, it seems Oniani had him killed. In the process, he alienated the traditionalists among the vory, demonstrated his disrespect for the underworld consensus, and brought the prospect of a full-blown mob war even closer.

Oniani had become a danger -- and bad for business. While gangs and networks are autonomous units, there is within the Russian underworld a series of mechanisms whereby serious disputes can be averted or resolved and agreements between kingpins hammered out, usually at a "skhodka," a criminal summit.

Sometimes the resolutions of these summits involve sanctioning direct action against common threats. When another Georgian, Otari Kvantrishvili, tried in 1994 to assert his control over all Moscow's gangs, he fell to an assassin's bullet following a skhodka that voted for his elimination. With Oniani, though, there appears to have been a concern that such a move might itself spark a war. What better way to deal with the problem than have the state do the job for them?

Room For The Law

There are, of course, honest Russian judges, police officers, and prosecutors, and it is not impossible for a godfather to be justly convicted. It is, though, depressingly rare. Senior figures are rarely detained; if detained, are even more rarely charged; and if charged, are almost never convicted. Oniani's case seems unusual in the absence of procedural irregularities, the availability of evidence (including witnesses' willingness to testify, generally a problem given weak witness-protection measures), the bullishness of the prosecutors, and the Kremlin's support for a conviction.

Were Oniani's criminal empire not being dismantled, it would in all likelihood have been able to find ways to derail this trial. Indeed, had assurances not been given that its days were numbered, prosecutors might not have moved against him in the first place. Conversely, had Oniani not been in prison, his empire would have been nowhere near as vulnerable.

As it is, though, both state and underworld have reasons to be happy. A violent and bloody turf war has probably been averted, something that would have embarrassed the government and forced it to take a tougher line with the gangsters. The criminal kingpins have seen a troublesome and dangerous man taken out of circulation and can enjoy sharing out parts of his criminal empire among themselves. And the vory, remnants of a dying subculture, can know that Ivankov has been avenged, albeit in a very 21st-century way.

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