At a time when Russian organized crime in the United States has tended to become white collar and businesslike, focused on Medicare frauds and tax scams, there was something refreshingly old-school about the indictment unsealed in New York on April 16.
It alleges that since 2006, a Russian-led criminal network has operated illegal high-stakes gambling activities, including online sports books for Russian millionaires and poker games in New York and Los Angeles for an A-list domestic clientele of professional athletes, media celebrities and financiers. They are also accused of extortion and running a $100-million-plus money laundry that operated through Cyprus. (For more on that enterprise sector, see here.)
In many ways, this was a throwback to a previous age. The alleged ringleader is the infamous Uzbek-born gangster Alimzhan Tokhtakounov, known as ‘Taivanchik’ (‘Taiwanese’). He is one of the last greats of the traditional gangster elite of the vory v zakone (‘thieves within the code’). As a vor, he gave the operation protection and credibility, for which he was reportedly paid $10 million in 2011 alone.
The other 33 people who actually carried out the crimes according to the indictment were a mix of Russians and others. At first glance, again this reads like something out of the 1990s or earlier, with picturesque nicknames like Dmitry ‘Blondie’ Druzhinsky and Joseph ‘Joe the Hammer’ Mancuso.
However, even the cast list demonstrates how Russian organized crime in the U.S. has moved on from its Brighton Beach days. First of all, as well as being multi-ethnic, it catered for and recruited members of financial and cultural elites. The international art dealer Hillel Nahmad has been arrested, for example, and his upscale Manhattan gallery was allegedly the front for gambling and money laundering operations. Banker Ronald Uy advised the gang on how to avoid drawing attention to their money transfers.
Second, this was a very fluid, networked organization. Tokhtakounov was a protected guarantor and mediator, but the main operations were carried out by two interconnected subgroups, described in the indictment as the ‘Taiwanchik-Trincher’ and ‘Trincher-Nahmad’ organizations.
Tokhtakounov himself is unlikely to be brought to justice. He is already wanted by the U.S. authorities on fraud charges relating to the Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Olympics and is the subject of an Interpol Red Notice, an international arrest warrant. However, he is now in Russia, a citizen and the Russian constitution bars the extradition of its nationals. As long as he remains there and does not anger the authorities, he is safe. Given that the prosecution is in the hands of U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara, who has just been featured on a Russian blacklist, Moscow is unlikely to bend the rules to help. In that, at least, this case is very familiar.