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The return of the Russian gangsters


Mapping organized crime trends sheds new light on the local underworld

The reversion of drug routes from the south toward Russia is giving rise to new trends in organized crime in the Czech Republic, which is viewed as a potential drug hub.
Where have the Russian gangsters gone? There is a striking disconnect between the regular warnings from the police, Interior Ministry and Security Information Service (BIS) that Russians represent a serious challenge to the Czech Republic and the actual evidence on the ground: arrests made, criminals convicted, goods seized. Instead, it is usually Czech gangsters or criminals from even further afield who are brought to justice, such as the Vietnamese gangs that are increasingly being held responsible for trafficking marijuana and methamphetamines.
In part, those warnings have become a ritual recitation of past fears, and there always seems to be some terrible threat just around the corner. Two shootings in 2008, for example, led a BIS spokesperson to raise the specter of a gang war between Russian-speaking groups in Prague, which never materialized. Likewise, it seems every report of Russians in Karlovy Vary contains some dark allusion to mafia money.
Only sometimes there really is a wolf around that corner. While Russian gangsters are much less in evidence in the Czech Republic these days, there are real reasons to fear they will be back. As an official from the Internal Affairs Ministry in Moscow told The Prague Post, "Last time, our gangsters thought they could just bully their way in. This time, they will be much smarter."
In the 1990s, Russians made serious inroads into the Czech underworld, but even then there was a degree of politically convenient exaggeration: An Interior Ministry report in 1992 claimed 80 percent of all organized crime was committed by foreigners.
All the main networks such as the Moscow-based Solntsevo, St. Petersburg Tambovskaya and Chechen and Caucasian groups were strongly positioned in the country. For a while, Prague was even home to Semyon Mogilevich, the notorious Ukrainian-born Russian criminal who is a fixture on the FBI's "most wanted" list. However, the Russians' very visibility was also their weakness. They attracted far too much police attention and the enmity of local gangs.
Over the course of the 1990s, many Russians were forced out of the country, and a number of operations closed down. Yet that did not mean they abandoned the Czech Republic. Instead, the Russians had to adopt a lower profile. They withdrew from many street-level activities such as protection racketeering and selling drugs, though Ukrainian gangs still tended to victimize the Ukrainian community, especially in Moravia. Instead, they concentrated on working at the level of illegal wholesalers, criminal coordinators and underworld investors in businesses of every kind. Several sources in Moscow suggest even a link with billionaire František Mrázek, who was gunned down in Prague 2006.
They maintained contacts, a position within the Czech underworld and a criminal infrastructure. According to the Russian police, those foundations may be about to be built on afresh, mainly because of drugs, and Afghan heroin in particular.
Afghanistan produces more than 90 percent of the world's opium and heroin. Historically, those drugs flowed into Europe through the Middle East and Turkey. Increasingly, though, they are taking the "Northern Route" through Russia, which now accounts for almost a third. Some head east into China, some stays in Russia, but most carries on into the lucrative European market. This is proving a bonanza for Russian organized crime, especially given the depressed state of the rest of the economy. Gangs able to tax or control the drug routes are thriving.
As existing routes through Poland become saturated, the criminals currently managing the trade are looking for alternatives to get their heroin into Europe. The Czech Republic is well placed to be a drug hub (already Interpol reckons that 70 percent of all narcotics smuggled into the country is for re-export) and the Russians have the cash and connections to make it happen. A Russian investigator from their Federal Antinarcotics Service, the FSKN, told The Prague Post he expects the level of heroin trafficking into the country to increase by 25 percent a year.
He also raised an alarming second possibility, that it could become the arena for competition. As he put it, "if you can't control the pipeline, you wait by its mouth." In other words, gangs losing out in Russia might try to move into the Czech Republic to muscle into the market. By the standards of most European countries, heroin is disproportionately popular in the Czech Republic, creating a lucrative opportunity.
The third potential implication is that it experiences an influx of dirty Russian money. The traffickers are making unprecedented amounts and are doing so at a time when Russia's future is uncertain. For all his tough rhetoric, Vladimir Putin has never made the fight against organized crime a priority. Russia's godfathers fear the urban protest movement now rising in Russia might force Putin to crack down on corruption and dirty money. Thus there has been an upsurge in the amount of shady money leaving Russia (total capital flight this year is likely to be anything from $50 billion to $100 billion).
This coincides with renewed international efforts to control illegal capital flight and money laundering. Just when the criminals want to move funds out of Russia, their traditional routes through Cyprus, Israel and Italy are under pressure, so they are looking for alternatives. The Czech Republic has a highly developed and stable banking system, but on the other hand is perceived as somewhere that corruption and artifice can evade financial controls. The Russian FSKN has identified a number of cases in which it believes drug money may have been moved through networks of front companies into the country.
Meanwhile, the authorities may be looking the wrong way. Agencies like BIS seem most concerned about the threat of Russian intelligence agencies using gangsters as agents, or the Kremlin using front companies to gain influence. These are real threats, but arguably less immediate and serious than "ordinary" organized crime.
This politicized perspective also makes it harder to cooperate with Moscow. Unprofessionalism, corruption and political interference within Russian law enforcement are massive obstacles to any partnerships. However, at the same time, there are honest, intelligent and effective Russian investigators who genuinely want to collaborate.
The challenge is finding some route through the obstacles. A new law on Czech-Russian police cooperation is a great start. Next year, the Interior Ministry should also be completing deliberations about hiring suitably vetted foreign nationals, something Robert Šlachta, head of the ÚOOZ organized crime detection unit, has supported. Certainly some Russian and other Eurasian officers would also make it easier to infiltrate and understand these gangs.
Ultimately, the unavoidable logic of the market means the Russians are coming. Afghan heroin is reshaping the Russian underworld, creating winners who want to establish trafficking routes through the Czech Republic, losers who are being pushed west into Central Europe and profits that need to be invested. The question is how Prague prepares itself to deter or deal with its future guests.
- Mark Galeotti is professor of global affairs at New York University's SCPS Center for Global Affairs.