Will Medvedev’s New Laws Help Russia Defeat the Mafia?

Will Medvedevs New Laws Help Russia Defeat the Mafia?

The raid looked like something out of a Hollywood action movie. On July 7,
Russian special forces dropped down on ropes from a helicopter to storm a
luxury yacht on the Pirogovsky reservoir outside Moscow, arresting three
dozen mobsters, including the group’s alleged ringleader, Tariel Oniani. But
within days, nearly all of them, including Oniani, had to be set free
because prosecutors couldn’t charge them with anything.

Russia’s laws have long been weak and unspecific when it comes to combating
organized crime, part of the reason that the underworld has thrived in the
country in the post-communism years. But the government may finally be
getting serious about cracking down on the mafia. In the wake of the
embarrassing release of the mobsters in September, President Dmitri Medvedev
proposed harsh new legislation targeting organized-crime figures, making a
rare admission that “the legal code does not have a response to the
increasing social dangers of these crimes.” Within weeks, the parliament
approved the measures by an almost unanimous vote.

Perhaps most significantly, one of the new laws is aimed directly at the
powerful heads of Russia’s various mafia clans, who rarely get their own
hands dirty. Under the statute, leading an underground criminal group is now
punishable by life in prison. “As a rule, [the dons] don’t directly
participate in criminal acts, and so they go unpunished,” Oleg Morozov,
deputy speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, wrote last month on
his party’s website. “The president’s legislation gives more precise
definitions of what can be called a criminal conspiracy and a criminal

Another new law makes it illegal for mobsters to meet to discuss their
operations or planned criminal activities, an act punishable by up to 20
years in prison. This provision seems to be linked to the incident on
Oniani’s yacht; under the new statute, the men would have faced charges just
for showing up for the meeting. According to local law-enforcement officials
who were quoted in the Russia media, the purpose of the gathering was to discuss
Oniani’s turf war with Aslan Usoyan, leader of a rival clan in Moscow.
Weeks later, the reputed godfather of the Russian mafia, 69-year-old
Vladislav Ivankov, was shot in the stomach in northern Moscow by a sniper
who fired across eight lanes of traffic. Ivankov, who died on Oct. 9 after spending two months in the hospital, had recently sided with Usoyan in a dispute with Oniani over control of lucrative rackets in Moscow.

Given how entrenched Russia’s organized-crime syndicates have become in
recent years, some experts question whether the new laws will do any good.
According to a report that accompanied Medvedev’s proposal, the number of
criminal incidents linked to the mafia increased 32% from 2006
to 2008. Last year alone, the number of “grievous or especially grievous”
offenses committed by the mob — contract killings and kidnappings — climbed
almost 10%. So even if the reigning dons do get locked up,
replacements will likely be easy to find and the violence will probably
continue, says Yury Fedoseyev, former head of Moscow’s Criminal
Investigation Department. “The men I put away in the early 1990s for
extortion, racketeering, murder — they’re all getting out now,” he says. “And
I doubt they’re going to retire.”

With Ivankov’s killing, too, the conditions are ripe for an all-out war
between the Oniani and Usoyan factions, authorities say. Police say the
tensions between the two men date back to 2007, two years after Oniani
returned to Russia from Spain when police broke up his racketeering
operations there. As Oniani sought to re-establish himself in Moscow, he
started encroaching on Usoyan’s territory, and Usoyan’s top lieutenants began
turning up dead. One of them, Alek Minalyan, an Armenian allegedly in charge
of extorting money from construction firms working on projects for the 2014
Winter Olympics in Sochi, was gunned down in western Moscow on Feb. 6. The
bodies of two others, Andrei Golubev and an unidentified associate, were
found riddled with bullets in eastern Moscow on May 22.

Then came the hit on Ivankov. Known by the nickname “Yaponchik,” or “Little
Japanese,” because of his Asian appearance, Ivankov was considered by
both Russian and Western law enforcement to be one of the most influential
figures in the Russian criminal world. According to the FBI, he ran an
international mafia syndicate from his apartment in the Brighton Beach
neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., in the 1990s and served eight years in prison in
the U.S. for extortion and conspiracy. When he returned to Moscow following
his release in 2004, he was set on retiring. “I met with him a few times, and
he told me honestly that all he wanted in Russia was to rest,” says
Alexander Dobrovinsky, a Moscow attorney and an old friend of Ivankov’s who
helped prepare the defense for his trial in New York. “He was not a young
man anymore.”

But that was easier said than done. Because of his reputation, local bosses
still turned to him as an arbiter in their disputes. And according to
police, he sided with the older and more established Usoyan in the turf war
with Oniani. “In the eyes of these young and ambitious guys [like Oniani],
Ivankov is a relic,” Fedoseyev tells TIME. “He was away for many years, and
here he goes getting involved in their business.”

The brazenness of the hit on Ivankov suggests that Russia’s mobsters are
acting with greater impunity and disregard for the law. The government
now faces a major test: it needs to back up its new laws with determined
action, or risk losing control of the streets to the ever-more-powerful
mafia clans for good.

Read “Busting the Sicilian Mafia’s Board of Directors.”

See TIME’s favorite episodes of The Sopranos.