Russians fear mafia war for top gangster's empire after his death

Rival organised crime gangs are circling to take control of top gangster’s vast empire which included Sochi, site of the 2014 Winter Olympics

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 February, 2013, 3:41am


Fears of a brewing mafia war have begun to grip Russia three weeks after a top mobster was killed and rival clans seek control over his vast empire, including prime property in the Olympic host city of Sochi.

Rival clans are said to be eagerly eyeing property and businesses once overseen by Aslan Usoyan, better known by his mob name "Grandpa Hassan". Usoyan oversaw a vast empire that was particularly strong in Moscow and Sochi, site of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

"Where there is money, there is organised crime," said Sergei Kanev, a veteran crime reporter for Novaya Gazeta. "[Sochi] was his fiefdom. He considered it a second homeland."

Criminal interest in the city, long a favourite destination of the president, Vladimir Putin, has grown exponentially since it won the right to host the Winter Olympics, security sources say.

A top Russian official said on Sunday that Russia would spend more than GBP32.3billion (HK$394 billion) on the Games, making it the most expensive in history.

With one year to go until the Winter Games, attention has begun to focus on the resort town on the Black Sea. On Monday, Putin said he would use Russia's presidency of the Group of Eight next year to host the organisation's annual summit in the city.

Russians have been flocking to Sochi's beaches since the days of Stalin, who favoured the city's atypically Russian subtropical climate and peppered it with neoclassical mansions and palm-tree-lined boulevards.

They now stand overshadowed by towering construction sites after developers poured in on the news of the Olympics win.

News of the Olympics win also brought a wave of suspected mafia violence. The most high-profile attack came in late 2010 when Eduard Kakosyan, known as Karas, who was said to be one of Usoyan's top lieutenants in the city, was gunned down by a man on a motorcycle

"[Usoyan] was like a governor here, but from the criminal world," said a source close to the security services in Sochi. "It's like a second government."

Viktor Teplyakov, a local MP from the ruling United Russia party, denied that that was the case. "Many years ago there was an 'overseer' but after he was killed, no other criminals came to Sochi," Teplyakov said. "The city is very safe."

Teplyakov has fought off rumours in the Russian press that he had ties to Usoyan: "I am far from the criminal world - no meetings, no calls, no contacts."

The source close to the security services in Sochi said an eerie quiet had descended upon the city. "Everyone is waiting to see what will come next," the source said. "It's sure that something will happen. The money is too big for everything to just sit still."

Usoyan, an ethnic Kurdish Yezidi from neighbouring Georgia, was 75 when he was killed by a sniper after leaving his favourite Moscow restaurant, and makeshift office, on 16 January.

Since Usoyan's murder, Russia's underworld has been hit by further assassinations and arrests. Most have centred around Rovshan Dzhaniyev, an ethnic Azeri who is among those rumoured to be suspecting of ordering the hit on Usoyan.

On 20 January, a lieutenant of his in Abkhazia, the breakaway Georgian region that borders Sochi, died after being targeted in a drive-by shooting in the republic's capital, Sukhumi.

Just over a week later Rufat Nasibov, better known by his mob name "Rufo Gyandzhansky", was shot dead in Moscow.

"Most people don't want a war," said Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University who specialises in the Russian mafia.

"It's a bit like the run-up to world war one - no one wants a war, no one expects a war, but tensions have built up to such a pitch that there is a risk that what might seem to be one shooting can start the whole process rolling."

Russia has worked hard to present its powerful mafia as something that died with the 1990s - coinciding with Putin's rise to power.

In 2008, Putin's protege Dmitry Medvedev, then president, shut down the country's chief interior ministry department devoted to fighting organised crime.

"We thought it was a joke," said an official who served in the department until its closure, on condition of anonymity.

"There isn't a business in Russia that isn't under somebody [in the mafia]," the source said.