Feb 26 2008
The grave of Mikhail Kuchin, a casualty of Russia’s mafia wars. He is shown clutching the keys of his Mercedes
A surge in contract killings reminiscent of Russia’s mafia wars in the 1990s is threatening to damage Vladimir Putin’s legacy of stability in the dying days of his presidency.
As the Russian leader prepares to hand power to his handpicked sucessor, Dmitry Medvedev, after Sunday’s election, the Kremlin has been keen to remind Russians the president replaced Yeltsin era lawlessness with what he calls “the dictatorship of the law”.
But last week, Yuri Chaika, Russia’s prosecutor general, was forced to admit mafia-linked assassinations were again on the rise. The last seven days alone have seen the killings of the powerful prosecutor in the Saratov region, a leading Moscow lawyer and the procurement director of Russia’s biggest carmaker Avtovaz. A general in charge of defence ministry contracts also died suspiciously.
“A wave of contract killings has hit the country,” Mr Chaika conceded.
Despite the increase in assassinations, many of which have been linked to a power struggle between Kremlin factions, the violence pales in comparison with the anarchy of the mid-1990s when thousands were killed in turf battles between rival gangs.
Reminders of that astonishing period of attrition are everywhere in Russia, from photographs pinned on kitchen walls in the homes of widows to the gravestones in cemeteries from Moscow to Vladivostok.
Perhaps the most ghoulish can be found in two graveyards on opposite sides of Yekaterinburg, one the final resting place for members of the Central Gang, the other for their rivals in the Uralmash Gang, named after one of the city’s most hardscrabble suburbs.
In larger-than-life photographs etched into the granite, the tombstones depict hardened men in Hawaiian shirts and leather jackets. One holds a cigarette in his hand, another the car keys of his beloved Mercedes.
These are museums of vice set among the pine trees, but even here there are signs Russia’s mafia scene has not yet completely faded into history. Beside the grave of a Uralmash leader who died mysteriously in prison two years ago, two men in dark glasses keep watch over their former master’s resting place from a battered white Renault.
A camera perched on the top of the tombstone swivels in the direction of approaching strangers, a warning — it is said — not to pilfer the gold that lies within the grave. But most of the young fighters who once made up the brawn of the gangs, collecting protection money, kneecapping those who would not pay up and planting explosives in the cars of their rivals have moved on to lives of semi-respectability.
Few miss those days, a period, they said, when the only way to survive in Russia’s regional cities was to work for the mafia. Most also credit Mr Putin with ending the violence by giving the police new powers and ordering the arrest of many gang leaders.
“We were young and stupid,” said Oleg, a former gang member who now works at a drug rehabilitation centre.
“The criminal life seemed beautiful and exciting. Then all of my friends began to die, most of them shot or from overdoses.”
“The wars are over. People’s values have changed and the laws have become tougher like they should have been. We should be thankful to Putin for that.”
Many of the mafia leaders who survived have gone straight too. Yekaterinburg is now littered with shopping malls, hotels and even juice bars owned by former Uralmash capos.
While soaring oil prices have largely driven Russia’s economic boom, businessmen say the end of the mafia wars has done much to allow ordinary entrepreneurs to make money without fear of losing it.
Take Nikolai, for instance. As a new graduate in the early 1990s, he first made it big by taking control of a metallurgy factory near Yekaterinburg using a questionable but legal method known as corporate raiding.
“My brother and I cropped our hair, put on leather jackets and went to shareholders’ homes,” he said over dinner in Yekaterinburg’s most exclusive restaurant.
“We basically intimidated them into supporting our takeover of the factory.”
With the plant’s Soviet era “red director” ejected, Nikolai turned a failing factory with 300 workers into a successful operation that employed 1,000.
Yet, although he employed mafia protection, Nikolai was forced to hand over the plant to Uralmash. Today he directs a profitable consultancy with foreign partners and boasts that he does not even have to pay bribes.
His young fiancée, who grew up in a mafia family, works in a charity for the disabled and believes Russia’s future in bright.
“I used to live in terror,” she said.
“I would be scared to walk home. You would often hear explosions. I think that many Russians are grateful that the terror and instability is gone — it’s an important reason why Putin is so popular.”
Once feared men now inspire little more than passing interest. Outside a café in the Siberian city of Omsk, a corpulent bald man stepped out of a Lamborghini with a younger female companion. “That’s The Enforcer,” said Andrei, a driver, as the man walked into the café.
“He was in charge of imposing discipline. Everyone was terrified of him but now we just think he’s a loser.”
The appearance of stability does much to explain why Mr Putin is both popular and supported in his clampdown on democracy — a fact many Russians believe has allowed the restoration of order.
Yet appearances are in some ways misleading. Experts estimate 30 per cent of the Russian economy is still in gangster hands. Most of these gangsters now work in local politics and even in the Kremlin itself and are still prone to using illegal methods to further their interests.
Alongside them the FSB, the KGB’s successor, has grown increasingly powerful and uses many of the same mafia techniques the gangs of the 1990s used.
“Russia’s main problem, one that stops it from becoming a normal country, is that an unholy nexus of politics, big business and organised crime still dominates the ruling class,” said a western diplomat. It is a point that Nikolai, the Yekaterinburg businessman concedes — although he is more optimistic.
“Russia is not the wild east any more,” he said. “It hasn’t completed the transition to normal modern state yet. But maybe in the next generation when professionals manage the state rather than the ex-military, things will work out.”
*Some names in this story have been changed.
Russian mafia killings threaten Putin legacy – By Adrian Blomfield in Moscow – Last Updated: 3:32am GMT 26/02/2008 – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2008/02/24/wrussia124.xml