One bullet can make all the difference. A single bullet killed Austro-Hungarian Archduke Ferdinand in June 1914, starting the chain of events that led to the First World War. On January 16, a single bullet killed one of the most powerful gangsters in Russia, and may trigger a second mob war to rival the bloody underworld conflict that raged across the country in the 1990s.
Aslan Usoyan, 75, the Kurdish Georgian criminal leader known as ‘Ded Khasan’ (‘Grandfather Hassan’) was stepping out of a Moscow restaurant when he was shot in the head. The assassin seems to have been a professional contract killer, given his skill and his use of a specialized weapon generally only issued to Russian Spetsnaz special forces: a silenced AS Val assault rifle.
Contract killings are by no means rare in Russia, and neither are murders of mobsters. However, Usoyan – who had survived a similar assassination attempt in 2010 – was one of the highest-profile and most senior godfathers in the Russian underworld. He was a gangster of the old school, feuding with two other mob bosses who, like him, hailed from the Caucasus region to Russia’s south.
One, Tariel Oniani (‘Taro”), has his own powerful, national criminal network. He is currently in prison, but still running his gang from behind bars. To him, Usoyan was his main rival. The other, Rovshan Janiyev (‘Rovshan Lenkoranskiy’) from Azerbaijan, is a hungry outsider eager to take over Usoyan’s place in the underworld.
Although the police are suggesting that Oniani was to blame, to a degree this is irrelevant. Usoyan’s successors will have to strike back, and this will breed more reprisals. Given that Russia’s underworld politics are currently in a particularly inflamed state, this may prove the spark which ignites a new set of turf wars.
Since the 1990s, when Russia was ripped by violent gang conflicts, there has been relative stability in the underworld. However, the 2008 financial crisis hit some gangs hard, and since then there has been increasingly urgent and violent competition for two new sources of criminal revenue. The work to prepare for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics offers massive opportunities for embezzlement, protection racketeering and real estate manipulation. Meanwhile, a growing share of Afghanistan’s heroin – almost a third at the moment – flows through Russia on the way to Europe and China.
Usoyan’s gang is strongly entrenched in Sochi. Oniani’s has a hand in the heroin trade. Janiyev and many ethnic Russian mobsters are eager to muscle into both businesses, especially at a time when the Kremlin seems distracted. A mob war which could spread across Russia seems closer now that at any point in the last decade.