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The Russian Mafia Is Dead. Or Is It?

By Leonid Bershidsky
January 18, 2013 10:27 AM EST

One of the last mafia kingpins from Russia’s wild 1990s has died. Rather than marking the end of an era, the event is reminding Russians just how much their government has occupied the role once played by organized crime.

Grandpa Hassan, as the mafia don was known, spent his last day holding court in the downtown Moscow cafe that served as his headquarters. At 2:30 p.m., he emerged to catch two bullets in the head and back, from a sniper on a roof across the street. Within hours, “GrandpaHassan” was a trending topic on Twitter. In the very act of dying, a figure from a freer, more lawless era thrust the nation into an examination of its criminal past and present.

Grandpa, whose passport identified him as Aslan Usoyan, 75, was a legend in his own time. An ethnic Kurd, he was “crowned” in 1966 as a “vor v zakone” -- a Russian crime boss of the highest rank. He survived at least three assassination attempts, outliving most of the ranking mobsters of his generation and staying on in Russia as others left for warmer shores in Spain or Bulgaria. His livelihood involved mediating mob conflicts and running a network of shadowy interests, primarily in the south of Russia.

“Only one remained in Russia, one who was known to all without exception,” journalist Maxim Kononenko eulogized in the newspaper Izvestia. “A figure from an earlier time, a Loch Ness monster, a yeti, a real fossil -- someone who connected us to our past.”

As if in recognition of Usoyan’s importance, police immediately posted guards at the Botkin Hospital morgue where his body was delivered after doctors failed to revive him. “They should have called in the honorary guard from Lenin’s tomb,” wrote blogger Sergei Averin on Twitter.

Versions of why Usoyan finally met a violent death abounded. He was reported to be skimming off the multibillion- dollar budgets earmarked for the 2014 Winter Olympics to be held on his home turf, in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi. Some said his old enemy Tariel Oniani, an opponent in gangland wars since the 1980s, must have been involved in the killing. Others suggested that he had been selling weapons to Kurdish separatists in Turkey, and the hit was punishment from the Turkish special services. Still others blamed younger mobsters fed up with Hassan’s old-school methods and abnormally long reign.

“I’m sick of this Hassan already,” blogger Sergei Nikolaev commented on Twitter. “It’s as if half the country has just got out of jail.”

Since the early 2000s, mobsters had faded from public view in Russia. Stories of the “Russian mafia” were for naive foreigners. In that context, some commentators portrayed Usoyan’s demise as a benefit of Putin’s authoritarian rule.

“The murder of Grandpa Hassan has put a full stop at the end of the ’accursed ’90’s’ story, unless he somehow manages to rise from the dead,” Vladimir Novikov wrote on the state- controlled site RAPSInews.ru.

“Such murders and a well-developed criminal underworld are features of market democracies such as the U.S. or Italy,” Alexei Pushkov, head of the Russian parliament’s Foreign Policy Committee, commented in his microblog.

Others, though, see less difference between the current regime and the organized crime of old. Under Putin’s tight clique of former KGB officers, law enforcement agencies have become more powerful than any mafia. Extortion and racketeering are now largely the turf of tax inspectors and economic-crime police.

“Private business is still deprived of effective protection on the part of the law enforcement system and the courts,” wrote journalist Mikhail Kozyrev on the opinion website Slon.ru. “If there is demand for fair solutions to problems, there will also be supply” from bureaucrats, police, special services and even crime bosses. “Quite law-abiding businessmen reach out to them for protection.”

In short, the mobsters are not really gone. They have merely been forced to share the market with other protection peddlers. Albeit less visible, they are just as wealthy and well-connected.

“I have met some mobster-businessmen with close ties” to state-owned companies, bureaucrats and special services, investigative journalist Irina Reznik wrote in a Facebook comment. “Very often these businessmen have run errands too shady for government-appointed managers and officials.”

Grandpa Hassan’s cafe office, after all, was just a mile from the Kremlin.

(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow and Kiev correspondent for World View. Opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: bershidsky@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net.

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