Gangsters brings to mind an age of machine guns, cigars, prohibition, bombshell damsels looking for a way out, and most recently, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling being attractive together. There’s a vague remembrance that these are people whose lifestyles are predicated on extortion, violence, oppression, and death. But when it’s just so romanticized by Hollywood, who can resist a gangster story?
The most recent one out of the region is as intriguing as ever:
Aslan Usoyan — aka Ded Khasan — was one of the highest-ranking figures in the Soviet-era and post-Soviet underworld, and his assassination by a sniper on January 16 threatens to leave a vacuum that could spark a mob war.
The article goes on to speculate about his killing and the shock waves it will create. It’s well worth a read, and left me, as a reader, wondering - who are these mysterious gangsters of the post-Soviet world? Will Russia descend into a turf war, and how would that play out, and would subsequent events even be covered by the media in Putin’s Russia?
So, here they are: the decidedly un-romantic gangsters of Russia and the Caucasus, with thanks to RFE/RL’s article and the blog ‘In Moscow’s Shadows’ on the killing of Aslan Usoyan for giving us the idea and the names to work from.
Usoyan, termed “Russia’s Don” by The Independent, was a Kurdish Georgian known as Grandpa Khasan, indicative of his role as a patriarchal figurehead on the organized crime hierarchy. It is thought that he was killed by members of rival Georgian organized crime group whose leader, Tariel Oniani, is behind bars, and there are concerns that Usoyan/Khasan’s death will spark revenge killings of rival groups. He was murdered outside of his favorite restaurant, a reportedly ‘kitschy’ Azerbaijani restaurant and the gun used, a Val sniper rifle, is apparently favored by the Russian special forces. He reportedly rose to power by being the keeper of an emergency fund used for jailed Russian criminals, and is known for having personal connections outside of politics.
Tariel Oniani, the rival Georgian speculated to be behind the assassination of Usoyan, was vying for construction contracts for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, southern Russia. Oniani and the assassinated Usoyan have been in dispute as far back as 2006, according to some reports and the approach of the Olympics was intensifying their dispute. In 2010, he was sentenced to 10 years in jail on charges of kidnapping and extortion, but he continues to run his criminal empire from prison, most of which is reportedly centered around suspect construction dealings. He’s believed to be behind the assassination at least one other crime boss (link in Russian) from Russia, who sided with Usoyan following a mediation attempt between the two crime lords.
Dimtry Chanturia (also called Miron) is set to succeed the recently assassinated Aslan Usoyan, and his nephew. Little information is available about Miron to the casual observer, except that he has been hand-selected and groomed by Usoyan to take over the criminal empire left behind. With the powerful and experienced Oniani likely to vie for control over Usoyan’s network, some have questioned Chanturia’s ability to hold the criminal empire together.
Rovshan Janiyev is called the Azeri Godfather, and reportedly also had beef with Usoyan and masterminded a previous assassination attempt that failed. Janiyev’s empire is transnational, spanning Russia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine. He is reportedly trying to increase his territory and expand his business markets, provoking the older, more established criminal orders
Finally, Zakhar Kalashov, another Georgian who was formerly allied with the assassinated Usoyan but, according to ‘In Moscow’s Shadows’ the two were increasingly seen as rivals. He was arrested in Spain as part of a massive crackdown on Russian mafia members, but extradited back to Georgia in 2010. He was also wanted for money laundering in the United Arab Emirates.
The ‘Russian Mafia’ – made up of a variety of ethnic groups and from many countries – is extremely powerful, and with the new and much-needed expansion of Sochi for the Olympics, there are many incentives for mobsters to move in on this new territory and attempt to break up Usoyan’s empire. Some analysts have feared a return to the mob warfare seen in the 90s, though others are hoping that the godfathers of various factions will come together and attempt to fill the power vacuum “peacefully.” The latter seems more of a long shot, especially with such a massive empire potentially up for grabs.