Mafia Boss's Slaying In Moscow Sparks Fears Of Mob War
The announcement from the Moscow police seemed innocuous enough.
"In downtown Moscow, on Povarskaya Street, there was a shooting incident that resulted in a citizen born in 1937 being injured," spokesman Andrei Galiakberov said. "He was taken to hospital, where he died of his injuries. We can confirm that the man was Mr. Usoyan born in 1937. No further details."
But it sent shockwaves throughout Russia and much of the former Soviet Union. 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.
Mark Galeotti, a professor of global affairs at New York University and a specialist in Russian crime and law enforcement, says the Usoyan killing comes at a time when the post-Soviet underworld is already out of balance.
"The underworld was already pretty unstable, with the pressures of the 2008 financial crisis and then the twin opportunities created by the Sochi Winter Olympics, and, above all, Afghan heroin, which is increasingly flowing through Russia. Almost a third so far," Galeotti says. "All that meant that there was a lot of volatility within the Russian underworld."
Russia plans to spend $18 billion on the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. It is impossible to estimate the value of the Afghan heroin trade to Russian organized crime, but Galeotti cites a Russian Interior Ministry official who estimates that by 2014 that business will be equal in value to all the other activities of organized crime in the entire country.
Vladimir Pribylovsky, an analyst with the Panorama think tank in Moscow, also emphasizes the money.
"There have been rumors that the criminal world has invested heavily in the Sochi Olympics and that the money was invested via Khasan [Usoyan]," Pribylovsky says. "You can list as many scenarios as you like [for why he was murdered] -- maybe someone wanted to interfere with the Olympics; maybe someone wanted to steal money off Khasan. You can make a lot of money by interfering with the Olympics. It's all about money and has nothing to do with politics."
Usoyan, 75, was a career criminal from his adolescence in post-World War II Soviet Georgia. With the coming of the perestroika era under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, he began providing protection to black marketeers.
By the time he was killed, Usoyan was an influential "vor v zakone" (thief-in-law), the rough equivalent of a mafia godfather, and controlled a powerful underworld network in and around Moscow that extends south through Krasnodar and into the North Caucasus.
He was also a powerful force in Sochi, where the huge influx of money connected with the 2014 Winter Olympic Games opened up tremendous new vistas, Galeotti says.
"The Sochi Winter Olympics are proving to be an extraordinarily rich honey pot for corrupt officials and organized crime. And this is something that Usoyan recognized really quite quickly and his organization is most strongly entrenched around it," Galeotti says. "We are talking about everything from buying up real estate ahead of time so that you can sell it at artificially high prices through to penetrating and exploiting the construction and tourism industries."
Despite Usoyan's purported involvement in the Sochi Olympics, Galeotti downplays speculation that the mobster had close ties with senior officials, up to and including President Vladimir Putin. He notes that a photo has been making the rounds on the Internet purporting to show Putin together with Usoyan in the 1990s, but doubts have been raised about its authenticity.
Usyan simply wasn't that kind of a mobster, Galeotti says.
"He was very much a gangster of the old school," he says. "Whereas the modern ethnic-Russian gangsters -- remember, Usoyan was a Kurdish Georgian by descent -- the modern ethnic-Russian gangsters very much look to plug themselves in to national politics. Usoyan tried to keep away from that. He had a whole variety of clients and allies in local politics, but at the national level he really just wanted to make sure that he was left alone."
Usoyan was the target of at least two previous assassination attempts, first in Sochi in 1998 and the second in Moscow in 2010. After the latter incident, analysts say he began grooming his nephew, 32-year-old Dimtry Chanturia (aka Miron), to succeed him. According to media reports, he had a long-running dispute with Georgian mobster Tariel Oniani (aka Taro) since at least 2007. Oniani is currently in prison but continues to control his criminal network.
Usoyan was also reportedly in conflict with Azeri godfather Rovshan Janiyev (aka Rovshan Lenkoransky) and Georgian mobster Zakhar Kalashov (aka Shakhro Junior).
The Russian establishment has been quick to assert that Usoyan's killing marks the end rather than the beginning of a possible open mafia war. Veteran Interior Ministry officer Aleksandr Mikhailov told Interfax the killing means "the redivvying of the [criminal] market is over." United Russia Duma Deputy Irina Yarovaya was quoted as saying there can be no return to the lawlessness of the 1990s.
"Today we have a different country, different laws, and a different order," she told Interfax.
Other observers, however, are not so sanguine. Galeotti says the mafia might try to resolve the situation through talks, called a "skhodka" in Russian. Russia's Vesti television reported that such a meeting took place in the evening on January 16 at a posh Moscow restaurant just hours after Usoyan was killed. However, he says such meetings have failed to resolve tensions within the underworld in the past and there is no reason to be more optimistic now.
Instead, he sees a second scenario as more probable.
"The second option, and the one that I think is depressingly more likely, is that this really will trigger some escalation of underworld conflict -- not least because whoever takes over Usoyan's organization is going to have to show that he's tough and effective," Galeotti says. "And the only real way he can do that is by striking back. So we'd end up getting into the realm of tit-for-tat killings."