MOSCOW -- It’s downtown Moscow in a swanky Italian restaurant and Alimzhan Tokhtakhunov has just had lunch with a man convicted in absentia by France of involvement in international arms trafficking.
Moments later, Tokhtakhunov is hobnobbing with the former chief of Interpol's Moscow bureau.
Shortly thereafter, oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov pops out onto the veranda and nods hello. Pop queen Alla Pugacheva is sitting inside with some lady friends.
Welcome to the world of Tokhtakhunov, 65, better known as "Taiwanchik" or "Little Taiwanese." It's a world of glamor, lazily paced luxury, and influential friends.
The softly spoken ex-card shark flits about the Palazzo Ducale restaurant like he owns the place, dressed in a yellow polo shirt and garish blue trousers. He styles himself as an avuncular patron of celebrities and as a respected businessman gradually moving into retirement.
But it's a gilded cage: Tokhtakhunov cannot travel abroad. In the West, he has a reputation as an old-school Russian crime boss -- one of the last of a Soviet-era tribe of gangsters who emerged out of Stalin’s GULAG and were known as the "vory v zakone" – or "thieves in law."
'How Can The Americans Complain?'
United States attorneys in April charged Tokhtakhunov in absentia with extortion, operating an illegal gambling business, and of laundering millions of dollars through Cyprus. He is also wanted by Interpol over earlier allegations he bribed figure-skating officials at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah.
But in Moscow, where he lives with apparent impunity a stone's throw from the Kremlin, Tokhtakhunov scoffs at the allegations.
"Is it possible to do all that while living in Moscow?" he asks. "If I wasn't there, could I do this -- contrivance, theft, money laundering? If I was going to launder money, I'd have done it in my own country, right? The complaints would be coming from my country. How can the Americans complain that I, without even living there, laundered their money over there?"
WATCH: 'If they have an interest in me, I am not in hiding'
The April U.S. District Court indictment
says he used his "substantial influence in the criminal underworld" and, among other things, offered protection – "krysha" in Russian – to an international crime ring dubbed the Trincher-Taiwanchik Organization. It is alleged to have ties to the United States, Russia, and Ukraine. Thirty people have been arrested in the United States in connection with the case, which includes another crime ring.
Tokhtakhunov says he is personally acquainted with only two of the accused -- Vadim Trincher and Anatoly Golubchik, both of whom are seen as major players in the alleged crime ring.
Tokhtakhunov says he used to play cards with them in Soviet times but is not particularly close to them nowadays. He says he would place "small" bets with them on soccer games.
Asked why the United States says Trincher paid Tokhtakhunov millions of dollars in the space of two months in late 2011, Tokhtakhunov smiles broadly: "What 20 million dollars?"
'Vor V Zakone'
An ethnic Uyghur born in Uzbekistan's capital, Tashkent, Tokhtakhunov began his career in soccer as a center forward or halfback. He says it was there that he won the nickname Taiwanchik for his narrow Asiatic eyes. The diminutive "-chik" refers to his short height.
But football was never his real calling.
"[Playing] cards sucked me in more than football because that was where the money was," he says. "I got to Moscow via football. I got into the CSKA [Moscow] football club and then I started seriously playing cards."
It was in the shady world of cards and gambling – outlawed in the Soviet Union and largely run by gangsters – that he met the likes of Vyacheslav Ivankov, aka "Yaponchik," the self-professed crime boss who was gunned down by a sniper in Moscow in broad daylight in 2009.
In 1989, Tokhtakhunov moved to Europe, where he would live off and on for a decade and a half – until he was arrested in Italy for allegedly bribing figure-skating officials at the 2002 Winter Olympics. There, he was detained for 10 months but despite U.S. extradition requests was released because evidence was deemed not compelling enough in Italy. Since then, he has resided in Russia.
The U.S. indictment explicitly calls Tokhtakhunov a "vor v zakone," a "member of a select group of the highest level criminal figures from the former Soviet Union who receives tribute from other criminals, offers protection, and uses his recognized position of authority to resolve disputes among criminals."
The "vory v zakone"
who emerged out of the GULAG were a Soviet Union-wide criminal tribe that used to adhere to a strict code of conduct that involved not marrying or holding a regular job.
Tokhtakhunov denies outright being a "vor v zakone," which would be in contravention of the code of conduct -- but he says no one follows the code anymore.
"Of course, the [code] isn’t followed," he says. "Nowadays they've changed their laws – they own homes and have families."
He distances himself from the criminal world of today.
"I knew the older people of my generation. I don't know any of the new ones. I don't talk to this [criminal underworld]," Tokhtakhunov says. "As a journalist, you shouldn't include me [in this world]. Nowadays, I don't speak to these people. I'm a businessman. I'm old. I have a big family, many children. You understand? The people I knew aren't alive anymore."
'Last Of The Mohicans'
But Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and an expert on Russian organized crime, says Tokhtakhunov fits the mold of the traditional thief-in-law.
"In some ways, I would suggest that he is precisely the kind of traditional 'vor v zakone,' Galeotti says. "If you go back to the 1970s and earlier, the 'vory' weren't often gang leaders, they were not necessarily the ones who were most active directly in carrying out criminal activities. They were precisely the authority figures within the underworld. They resolved disputes, they backed various initiatives, and such like.
"They were figures characterized not so much by their ability to use violence -- although clearly often they had the capacity to do that -- or by the size of their gangs or whatever, but simply by the respect in which they were held. In that respect, Taiwanchik fits that model. He's something of a throwback or a 'last of the Mohicans.'"
Tokhtakhunov praises President Vladimir Putin, who prides himself on having stamped out the bloody organized crime that spilled onto the Russian streets in the 1990s.
"Today, there is a strong police force, a strong KGB (sic)," he says. "Everything is returning bit by bit. Everything works."
Despite recent mob violence, most notably the brazen daylight assassination
in Moscow of Aslan Usoyan, a legendary "vor v zakone" known as "Ded Khasan" -- Tokhtakhounov claims organized crime no longer exists in Russia.
"There is no organized crime in Russia. None," he says. "There are hooligans, there are some lightweight bandits, there are drunks who come together to get up to something. But organized, concrete crime nowadays does not exist. And if there is any, then I don't know about it and 100 percent, the police do know about it. Because thank God, they may be good, they may be bad, but there are laws now and they work."
Sitting on the veranda of the Italian restaurant, Tokhtakhunov says he doesn't fear being picked up by Interpol in Russia. He may not be able to leave Russia, but Tokhtakhunov says Moscow is like "paradise."
"Tax is 6 percent or 13 percent. In Moscow, I eat at the best restaurants, I live 100 meters from the Kremlin. I have a dacha – there's nature, it’s beautiful. People respect me, I have many friends. I'm a happy person," he says. "Even if they were to let me go abroad, I wouldn't go.”