Thieves’ Federation: Does Russia really want to eliminate organized crime? 

Thieves’ Federation: Does Russia really want to eliminate organized crime?
In a country where governmental institutions don’t perform their functions, the society becomes criminalized – primarily, for its own protection Photo: The CrimeRussia

President Vladimir Putin suggested to make Article 210 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (creation of a criminal community (criminal organization) and participation therein) more grievous, thus, declaring war on the organized crime and thieves-in-law. Are the authorities really determined to eradicate this problem? Or is this just a populist rhetoric similar to calls to root out the corruption? Is it possible to eliminate the organized crime in our country – where the criminal culture is so widespread in the society – and clamp down on its sources? What are the targets of the ruling regime bearing clear marks of a ‘mafia state'?

On February 14, 2019, President Vladimir Putin has introduced in parliament a bill increasing the legal liability for thieves-in-law, leaders of organized criminal groups, and participants of congregations held by heads or other representatives of such communities. It is suggested to amend Article 210 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (creation of a criminal community (criminal organization) and participation therein). 

In addition to the increase of the minimal punishment for participation in a criminal community – from 5–10 to 7–10 years behind bars, – the following changes have been introduced: 

- deprivation of liberty for a term of from 12 to 20 years for participation in congregations held by organizers, leaders, or other representatives of criminal communities and/or organized groups with the purpose to commit at least one crime stipulated in part 1 of this Article; and 

- deprivation of liberty for a term of from 12 to 20 years for holding supreme positions in the criminal hierarchy. 

The note to the Article still remains in place: “A person who has voluntarily ceased to participate in a criminal community (criminal organization) or a structural subdivision forming part of it, or in a meeting of organizers, heads (leaders) or other representatives of organized groups and who has actively contributed to the solution or suppression of these crimes, shall be released from criminal liability, if his/her actions do not contain formal elements of other crime”. 

On February 21, the bill has been passed in the first reading by the State Duma; chances are high that it is enacted – as it happens with any initiative brought by the President. 

The new amendments resemble the experience of Georgia: in 2004, Mikheil Saakashvili came to power and started struggling against crowned thieves using the same method: incarceration for the very fact of holding the thieves’ status. In 2005, the following terms have been included in the Criminal Code of Georgia: “membership in a thieves’ community” and “thief-in-law". Deeds stipulated in the first Article were punishable by deprivation of liberty for a term of from 3 to 8 years, either with or without a fine, while crowned thieves faced 5 to 10 years behind bars. A year later, in 2006, the Criminal Code has been toughened up: the membership in a thieves’ world became punishable by deprivation of liberty for a term of from 5 to 8 years, while the minimum punishment for thieves-in-law increased to 7 years (the maximum punishment remained the same – 10 years behind bars).

Михаил Саакашвили

Mikheil Saakashvili

In spring 2018, the Georgian Parliament has approved five laws increasing the criminal liability for crowned thieves and members of the thieves’ society and expanding the list of punishable deeds. Now any group of persons conspiring to carry out thieves’ activities is considered a thieves’ world. 

In addition, the term “member of the thieves’ world” has been expanded in Georgia. Now it is formulated as follows: “a member of the thieves’ world is any person recognizing the thieves’ world and actively involved in its activities, as well as any person recognizing the thieves’ world, having ties with it, and clearly expressing the readiness to participate in the activities of the thieves’ world through his/her actions”. 

The terms “thieves quarrel” and “thieves congregation” have also been formalized in Georgia. Both deeds are punishable. The membership in the thieves’ world is punishable by deprivation of liberty for a term of up to 15 years, its support – by 3 or more years behind bars, while any request for assistance made to a crowned thief is punishable by deprivation of liberty for a term of up to 7 years.

Saakashvili started his reforms capitalizing on a contradiction existing in the thieves’ community. The traditional thieves’ code was mostly forgotten by that time and ignored by many criminals – especially the provisions stipulating that thieves must not live in luxury and the prison is their home: crowned thieves used to control criminals serving their terms, prevent squabbles between them, and administer the thieves’ pooled cash fund. However, after the collapse of the USSR, many old principles have dissipated, and thieves started living in mansions. Some of them were never convicted to prison terms and acquired the thieves’ status for money. As a result, many thieves-in-law opted not to go to jail – but flee the country instead. 

Still, in the first months after the enactment of the new law, dozens of crowned thieves, who failed to leave Georgia on time, were detained. A special prison has been established for them – maximum security facility № 7 located directly under the headquarters of the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA). This was another measure targeting thieves-in-law – keeping them separate from other convicts to prevent from ruling anybody and imposing their ‘code'.

Тюрьма в Грузии

Prison in Georgia

But the war on thieves involves not only their incarceration. It was necessary to destroy the entire vertical enabling them to thrive. It was necessary to completely eliminate the thieves as a social group – together with the rest of the Georgian criminal world controlled by them. 

The authorities have escalated the struggle to the next level – the Georgian Ministry of State Security was disbanded and its functions redistributed between the new MIA and other governmental agencies. The MIA has been radically purged – almost 90% of the personnel were dismissed in two years. 

In the course of this large-scale anti-criminal and anti-corruption campaign, officials, businessmen, and thieves were forced to return to the state their fraudulent revenues on penalty of criminal prosecution. The collected funds were used for the reforms, including salary hikes for new officials and financing of special operations.

In some way, the Russian authorities pursue the same goal: the recent measures – retirement-age increase, value-added tax increase, and experimental taxation regime for self-employed citizens – clearly indicate the lack of money.

As a result, the crime rate in Georgia, including street and violent crimes, has decreased by times in a few years. By its crime rate, Tbilisi is now comparable with the most criminalized European cities. 

The Georgian authorities managed to satisfy the public demand – fatigue with corruption and need for justice. The new laws were supported by the political will. Vano Merabishvili, then-Minister of Internal Affairs of Georgia, later said in an interview: “We were unwilling to share the power with anyone”.

Иване Мерабишвили

Ivane (Vano) Merabishvili

The Kremlin is also unwilling to share power with anyone. But is it ready to wage a real war against the organized crime? Would the Russian authorities follow the steps of their Georgian and Italian colleagues? In the 1990s, in the course of Operation Mani Pulite (Clean Hands), over 3.5 thousand businessmen, officials, and politicians were prosecuted in Italy, including 251 parliamentarian and four former Prime Ministers... 

The struggle against thieves and mafia was a matter of political survival for the Georgian and Italian authorities – mafia normally substitutes the state in spheres neglected by it. 

Italian mafia was formed in Sicily during the period of anarchy and weakness of governmental bodies. At that time, highway bandits were like ‘Robin Hoods’ for ordinary people – they had shared their loot with local residents in exchange for respect and recognition. Over time, their relations became more complex – criminal groups started performing the protection function in the society, settling disputes, lending money, resolving social problems, etc. This is how the social basis of mafia has been formed. 

In our country, thieves-in-law have ‘surfaced’ in the 1970s–1980s drifting from the pure crime to shady economy. The post-Khrushchev liberalization made it possible to launder illegal revenues via seemingly legitimate enterprises, including restaurants, car service centers, and companies trading with foreign countries. First black marketeers controlled by thieves emerged in that period as well. The influence of the criminal world increased after the permission to establish cooperatives. The anti-alcohol campaign has also contributed to this. In the 1990s, many well-trained people – athletes, former enforcement officers, and military men – became unemployed, and a true orgy of crime broke up: racketeering, robberies, contract killings, etc. The situation significantly changed since then; the violence level has drastically decreased – but the system incorporating the organized crime still remains in place. Its services are still in demand – therefore, the state has a strong ‘competitor’.

Члены «Ореховской ОПГ» в 90-е

Members of Orekhovskie gang in the 1990s

The implementation of a state policy requires not only sticks – but carrots as well. But what can Russia offer to the society as an alternative? The corrupt police and biased courts? It is not that all people address bandits for help on a regular basis – but they don't trust governmental institutions anymore. The state has almost suppressed the civil society and independent media whose purpose is to rectify the situation. As a result, amid the endemic marginalization, the boundaries between the authorities and supposed targets of their repressive arms are dissolving.

If the society does not ensure the equality of all before the law, people start uniting into groups – on ethnic, religious, professional, etc. grounds. Because only organized groups are able to protect them.

Such groups live by their own laws. Today, we see a rising tide of interest to the criminal world in all strata of the society, including youth. This results in the spread of AUE (unity of convicted criminals and youth) subculture in Siberia and the Russian Far East. Teenagers follow the example of seasoned bandits and impose ‘levies’ on other schoolchildren to collect money for convicted criminals. This subculture includes ‘authorities’ and ‘bitches’, quarrels, and congregations. This is how the young people see the world and their integration into it – because other social elevators and self-fulfillment ways are not available to them.


AUE youth subculture

Another problem is that the Russian authorities may, in fact, be not interested in the struggle against thieves. Britain's The Times is citing Edward Lucas, a writer and consultant specializing in European and transatlantic security. According to him, the Russian authorities often actively collaborate with the organized crime using its members to fulfill delicate objectives. 

He refers to an episode described in the book entitled "The Vory: Russia's Super Mafia" written by British political expert Mark Galeotti specializing in the Russian organized crime. When the Canadian spy catchers interrogated Jeffrey Delisle, a naval officer who was caught spying for Russia in 2012, a puzzling detail emerged. His Russian handlers had tasked him not only with finding out the western alliance's most precious secrets about submarine warfare and encryption, but also with the rather more mundane job of checking up on what the Canadian Royal Mounted Police knew about the Russian gangsters operating there. "Why was the almighty Russian military intelligence interested in the everyday work of the Canadian justice?" – Galeotti asks. He believes that the stolen secrets of the Canadian police could be sold to bandits or exchanged for some services. The Russian state and organized crime have different interests – but still frequently collaborate with each other. 

Марк Галеотти

Mark Galeotti

In that context, the version claiming that Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned in 2006 because of his ties with the Spanish secret services does not seem absurd anymore. To refresh background: the Spanish authorities have encountered an ‘influx’ of thieves-in-law into the country – who started controlling gangs specializing in racketeering, robberies, and money laundering – and addressed Britain's MI6 for assistance. Litvinenko had collaborated with MI6 – being a former officer of the Federal Security Service (FSB) of the Russian Federation, he used to deal with the organized crime and supposedly could expose high-ranked Russian functionaries having ties with criminals operating in Spain.  

Russian political expert Stanislav Belkovsky believes that Sergei Skripal, a former officer of the Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate, could be poisoned for the same reason. The New York Times wrote, citing current and former high-ranked Spanish officials, that he had also collaborated with the Spanish law enforcement authorities. Furthermore, immediately after the Salisbury incident, Spain has called for a comprehensive probe into the poisoning of Skripal and his daughter.

The actions of the Russian authorities taken in relation to criminals extradited from Spain also look weird.

For instance, thief-in-law Zakhary Kalashov (Shakro Molodoy) – who hasn’t completed serving his term in Spain – was released immediately upon the arrival to Moscow. Concurrently, Georgia was seeking his extradition as well – the Georgian court has sentenced Kalashov in absentia to 18 years behind bars for abduction and creation of an illegal armed group.

Возвращение Калашова в Россию

Return of Kalashov to Russia

A similar story occurred with members of Tambovsko-Malyshevskie gang. In 2008, twenty persons were detained in Spain in the course of Operation Troika, including Aleksander Malyshev and Gennady Petrov – leaders of this organized criminal group. All of them have been charged with money laundering, arms trafficking, contract killings, extortion, drug dealing, document forgery, and smuggling. However, some time later, Petrov was released on bail of €1 million. In 2012, he received permission to make a short-term trip to St. Petersburg to visit his elderly mother and absconded. The Russian MIA had repeatedly declined requests of the Spanish authorities to search for suspects in the territory of the Russian Federation or allow them to question high-ranked defendants – instead, it had required Spain to transfer the respective criminal cases to Russia.

Several other gang members, including Malyshev, managed to break free in a similar way. Currently, Petrov and Malyshev reside in a prestigious district of St. Petersburg; their operations have been maximally legitimized.

The Spanish authorities continued collecting evidence and issued in March 2016 an international warrant against Vladislav Reznik, a Deputy of the State Duma, charged with membership in Tambovsko-Malyshevskie organized criminal group and money laundering in Spain. Of course, Russia refused to extradite the Deputy claiming that all allegations brought against him were a provocation. In early 2018, the trial of the gang has commenced. In late October, it has resulted in the acquittal of 17 defendants. According to the Spanish National Court, the prosecution failed to present sufficient evidence that the suspects were members of Tambovsko-Malyshevskie gang or assisted it through money laundering. To remind: the attempt to poison Skripal was committed in March 2018.

Задержание в Испании Геннадия Петрова

Arrest of Gennady Petrov in Spain

This episode clearly demonstrates whom the Russian authorities are treating as friends and whom – as enemies. If the state is indeed going to clamp down on the organized crime, their further integration is quite possible – to absorb the criminals instead of locking them up. 

Senator Rauf Arashukov detained in late January 2019 has also been charged with creation of an organized criminal group. Arashukov is neither a thief nor criminal ‘authority’ – but he perfectly fits the definition of a leader of an organized group stipulated in Article 210 of the Criminal Code. Following his orders, that group had committed murders and other crimes. He is supported by a powerful clan in the Karachay-Cherkess Republic and some local people and elite groups. The episodes incriminated to him were committed back in 2010 – but this hadn’t prevented Arashukov from climbing the career ladder and becoming a Senator in 2016. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that he has been detained for the old ‘sins’. The witnesses and persons charged with the murders haven’t provided any new information to the investigation. His arrest was a result of some political decision – because the law enforcement system in Russia is obviously faulty.

Рауф Арашуков

Rauf Arashukov

After the incident with Arashukov, it became known that he is not the only member of the Council of the Federation convicted for criminal offenses – in the last ten years, 12 Senators have been prosecuted for various crimes, from murders and rapes to shootings and embezzlements.

If there are so many criminals among Russian Senators – i.e. persons approving laws regulating the life in the country – what to say about the rest of the population?

The term “mafia state” is used in relation to such countries. It refers to a state where the interests of criminal groups have merged with the interests of the political authorities. The term was introduced in 2011 by Luke Harding, a journalist of the Moscow office of The Guardian, who has later published a book of the same name – “Mafia State” – describing the Russian government machinery as a mechanism siphoning off public funds to foreign accounts. Harding believes that “the government is mafia” in Russia. Hungarian sociologist and politician Bálint Magyar also uses the same term. He claims that so-called elections, courts, and laws exist in the mafia state – but they are transformed into tools used by the regime to regulate relations within the clan and distribute resources. With regards to Russia, the regime uses these tools because they were available at the time of the mafia’s ascension to power. This is neither an oligarchy because the political power is monopolized – as well as corruption, nor a dictatorship – because the mafia state still has some elements of legitimacy, including above-mentioned democratic cargo rituals. Some experts call such regimes “hybrid” because of this. Mark Galeotti adds that criminals don’t rule Russia yet because “the state has again become the most powerful criminal group in the country”.

Люк Хардинг

Luke Harding

Speaking about the practical implementation of the new law, some experts suppose that it be may be designed not against the thieves-in-law.

For instance, opposition politician Gennady Gudkov, a former Deputy of the State Duma and retired FSB colonel, claims that businessmen are often charged with creation of a criminal community in Russia.

According to Gudkov, after the enactment of the new law, the number of such criminal cases would increase – because corrupt operatives will demand higher sums from businessmen charged with such crimes for the termination of criminal proceedings against them. Political expert Ekaterina Shul’man, member of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, says that criminal cases are instituted against businessmen under Article 210 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation for two reasons: first, to eliminate the possibility of any procedural relaxation stipulated in ‘economic’ Articles of the Criminal Code; and second, because the exposure of an organized group is considered a more outstanding achievement than prosecution of a single economic subject. Olga Romanova, Executive Director of “Detained Russia” Public Movement, explains the logic of the law enforcement structures as follows. For instance, embezzlements have been identified at an enterprise. Its Accountant is arrested. But who has created the group? Apparently, the Director. He had even held a congregation for that purpose under the disguise of a shareholder meeting... Or, let’s say, a stage director is accused of misuse of funds. If so, he had held meetings of the theatre company to inform the accomplices of his criminal intentions.

Магомед и Зиявудин Магомедовы

Businessmen brothers Magomedov have been charged with creation of an organized criminal group

With regards to the real crowned thieves, sources of believe that the law enforcement structures would limit their efforts to demonstrative arrests of a few thieves-in-law. The new law would primarily affect those who still personally control bag snatchers, robbers, window-men, etc. in the same old way. Perhaps, representatives of this category of the supreme criminal hierarchy would have to flee Russia. But this won’t affect the operations of their subordinates in any way. Modern communications tools make it possible to control such processes remotely. Therefore, many crowned thieves have already relocated abroad – mostly to Turkey and Europe. The most vivid example is the story of thief-in-law Nadir Salifov (Guli) – without even entering Russia, he managed to seize control, via his emissaries, over the majority of vegetable markets where most vendors are Azerbaijani natives and significantly expand his area of influence.

3-й (слева направо) Гавриил Юшваев (Гарик Махачкала), 4-й Алексей Суворов (Петрик), 6-й Олег Шишканов (Шишкан).jpg

Left to right: (3) Gavriil Yushvaev (Garik Makhachkala), (4) Aleksei Suvorov (Petrik); (6) Oleg Shishkanov (Shishkan)

It is also necessary to take into account numerous ‘next-generation thieves’. This is the most powerful and rich part of the criminal world. Officially, all of them are businessmen. Operatives struggling against leaders of criminal groups claim that it is virtually impossible to prosecute them – especially taking that the majority of their sources of income seem to be perfectly legitimate. 

Overall, it is unlikely that the new amendments significantly affect crowned thieves. Over the course of their history, they have survived through many crises and transformations, including the ‘bitch war’ after World War II, Khrushchev’s ‘red camps’, and the emergence of lawless rival gangs in the 1990s. Most probably, thieves-in-law would survive the new law as well. Therefore, no drastic changes for the better can be expected in the criminal situation in our country anytime soon.



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