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Crime Central

Promised a glittering future, Vladivostok is today awash with poverty and crime. Now there are some new players: Central Asian gangs with endless supplies of heroin--and worrying links to terror

By Velisarios Kattoulas/VLADIVOSTOK and NAKHODKA

THOMAS PICKERING surely never thought it would come to this. In 1993, the powerful American diplomat predicted great things for Vladivostok. He was not alone. But Pickering, then No.3 in the State Department, went further than most: He argued that in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse, the wealth of natural resources encircling Vladivostok, and its proximity to the markets of China, South Korea and Japan, meant Russia's spectacular eastern port could soon rival Silicon Valley.

If only. Today, Vladivostok is riddled with poverty, corruption and crime. More alarming, law-enforcement officials believe that under the cover of rampant lawlessness, organized-crime gangs from Central Asia are flocking there to sell heroin. Ironically, according to the Council of Foreign and Defence Policy, one of Russia's top research institutes, such groups first started "paying particular attention" to the Russian Far East at around the same time Pickering was making his glittering prediction.

In the years since, according to Russian, Japanese and American law-enforcement and intelligence agencies, the activities of Central Asian crime gangs in the Russian Far East have become an important source of funds for the gangs and their terrorist partners back home. "Obviously, yes, Central Asian gangs in the Russian Far East are sending money home," says a Vladivostok-based prosecutor. An American intelligence officer who spent the late 1980s and early 1990s in Afghanistan describes the Russian take on events as "entirely in line" with United States intelligence from Central Asia.

The allure of the Russian Far East to Central Asian gangs is not hard to fathom. In a city that ranks 80th in Russia for per-capita income, and where many people are preoccupied by 19th-century living standards, the comings and goings of gangsters raise few eyebrows. Nor does the federal government--seven time zones away in Moscow--pay much attention to what happens in this eastern outpost. Local government, meanwhile, is famously rapacious, with officials notorious for demanding "bribes on their bribes."

Yet arguably the most enticing lure in Vladivostok is the criminality already engulfing the city. The Primorskii region, of which Vladivostok is the capital, boasts Russia's sixth-highest crime rate. Says a Western diplomat familiar with the area: "The same things that make it difficult for legitimate businesses to operate in Vladivostok are huge opportunities for organized crime." In fact, while Vladivostok's visible economy is in disarray, its underworld is thriving, even by Russian standards. Tellingly, though the Far East is one of Russia's poorest regions ranked by income, consumer spending comes in a healthy fifth. That paradox baffles no one in Vladivostok: As the hub of a vast smuggling trade (see map on page 50), Vladivostok is awash in cherny--black money.

Nobody doubts that Russian gangs orchestrate and profit from much of the organized crime in Vladivostok. But about three years ago, law-enforcement agencies, academics and diplomats began spotting increasing numbers of mob bosses of a different provenance; in particular, from Tajikistan, Kirgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Azerbajian and Uzbekistan. Russian officials now say that despite fierce and continuing opposition from local gangs, the newcomers have carved themselves a slice of the region's booming underground economy.

The most glaring sign of their presence? Spiralling rates of heroin addiction and plummeting street prices. The Moscow-based Council of Foreign and Defence Policy dates the start of the heroin flood to 1998, when Iran closed its border with Afghanistan and Western law-enforcement officials cracked down hard on the flow of Central Asian heroin to Europe and the United States. As a result, the Central Asian and Caucasian smugglers and terrorist groups that control half the world's heroin supplies--according to the United Nations Drugs Control Programme--began shipping large quantities of heroin to the Russian Far East.

"From Tajikistan and Kazakhstan to Vladivostok there's now a constant flow of heroin, but we're intercepting only the smallest fraction," says "Sergei", a Vladivostok prosecutor who, like many of those interviewed for this article, declined to be named for fear of retribution. "Until a couple of years ago, if you wanted to get heroin you had to place a special request, whereas now I can go out and show you exactly who's selling it on the streets."

The most powerful newcomers are the Chechens, who started arriving in significant numbers after Russian forces attacked the breakaway Republic of Chechnya in 1993. Law-enforcement officials say that under the law they can't reveal detailed regional crime statistics. But, they say, Chechens now run much of the underworld in Nakhodka, a town of 160,000 south of Vladivostok.

Chechen gangs there control several lucrative smuggling businesses--sea cucumber to China, sea urchin to Japan, stolen cars from Japan. According to police, as well as drug-trafficking, Chechen gangs in Nakhodka also specialize in bank fraud and in smuggling hijacked Russian oil-lorries to China. They "regulate" much of the trade crossing the nearby border between Russia and China, where they impose their own import and export "duties." And then there's their trade in smuggled nonferrous metals and Chinese-made counterfeit vodka. Little wonder that the government in Moscow says Nakhodka is Russia's third-most crime-plagued port.

In the past three years, Russian police and academics say, the Chechens have been followed east by gangsters from Central Asian republics. Tajik gangs now play a growing role in the heroin trade in cities across the Russian Far East. Azeris dominate many neighbourhoods in Vladivostok and Khabarovsk, a city north of Vladivostok, where they devote themselves to heroin smuggling and dealing, protection rackets and selling counterfeit vodka. Uzbek, Kirgyz and Kazakh gangs--the most recent additions--are also muscling in on the drug trade. Says the prosecutor Sergei: "It's really just the tip of the iceberg, but nowadays every other week we catch Caucasians from various regions involved in organized criminal activities here." Five years ago, that was unheard of.

While many Russian law-enforcement officials shy away from estimating how much Central Asian gangs send home annually, many believe it is significant. In 1999, for instance, special prosecutors in Vladivostok captured two Chechen brothers in possession of two kilograms of heroin, 10 hand-grenades, several cases of ammunition and two Kalashnikovs. The two men--Saihan Hanapiev, 32, and Saidhusan Hanapiev, 31--shared an apartment with their Russian girlfriends, spoke only Russian in public, avoided other Chechens, carried forged Ukrainian passports and posed as legitimate used-car dealers. However, at the same time, the Grozny natives were heavily involved in trading arms and drugs. An officer who spent six months investigating their activities says they sent about one-third of their income back to Chechnya. He suspects that at least some of the money was earmarked for funding Chechen separatists.

To a leading member of Vladivostok's Azeri diaspora with links to many of the Russian Far East's Central Asian crime bosses, none of this comes as a surprise. He insists Central Asian gangs are sending cash home regularly. The Vladivostok branch of the Federal Security Bureau, the successor to the KGB, concurs. It insists Central Asian gangs in the region are funnelling home the bulk of their incomes. In a report last year, the Council of Foreign and Defence Policy warned that in Tajikistan drugs were now "the chief source of funding for the Islamic armed opposition," and that increasingly Central Asia's "drug mafia is paying particular attention to Siberia and the [Russian] Far East."

Vitaly Nomokonov, a law professor and director of the Centre for the Study of Organized Crime at Vladivostok's Far East State University, argues that while the ties between Central Asian criminal gangs and terrorists are often hard to fathom and constantly evolving, they are durable and long-standing. In exchange for hefty donations, Nomokonov wrote in a report last year, Central Asian terrorist groups supply organized-crime gangs with drugs or information about where to buy them most cheaply. In other words, while the organized-crime gangs might not work for terrorist groups, they collaborate frequently.

How did Central Asian gangs gain such a solid toehold in the Russian Far East?

In many ways, law-enforcement agencies have Russia's early communist leaders, V.I. Lenin and Josef Stalin, to thank. In the 1920s, Lenin dispatched thousands of Caucasians to the region. In the 1930s and early 1940s, Stalin added to the numbers. Now, law-enforcement agencies say, new arrivals have the luxury of slipping into the region unnoticed by blending into established communities.

It also helps that the Russian Far East is awash with fake identity cards and passports. For instance, the Hanapiev brothers, the two Chechens arrested for arms and drug dealing, both carried forged Ukrainian passports. Police believe there are at least three rings producing high-quality fake documents in Vladivostok. In addition, says one senior Russian police officer, the Vladivostok passport office is so corrupt, "if you paid to get a Russian passport today you could probably pick it up tomorrow."

Law-enforcement officials believe that since the breakup of the Soviet Union, thousands of Central Asians and Caucasians have flocked to the region. Yet they concede they have no idea how many. "These people live really separately," says the prosecutor Sergei. "They only communicate with one another. Russians they keep contact with solely for making money." Hiromu Teratani, a sociology professor at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo, and the author of two acclaimed studies about Russian organized crime, estimates the region's Chechen diaspora alone could number 30,000.

At the same time, many elected and government officials work hand in hand with organized criminal groups--shielding them from the courts and the media in return for payoffs. "No doubt there are a number of powerful crooks close to powerful politicians, which means you can't touch either," one European diplomat says. "For example, there are businessmen with 'dark' backgrounds working as advisers to the regional administration or as deputies in the regional legislative assembly."

For the various law-enforcement agencies, an added problem is that the criminal newcomers are increasingly turning "legit." Before police pressure forced him to flee the region in 2000, Aslan Khatuev, a powerful Chechen gang boss based in Nakhodka, ran two banks and 10 other legitimate businesses in the city, as well as controlling most of the drug and stolen-car rackets. "He wrote poetry and had a university degree in philosophy," says a long-standing acquaintance. "If you hadn't heard about him you'd never have known what he was involved in." According to local folklore, he is now in hiding in either Canada or Hawaii.

A lawyer in Vladivostok said she regularly turns down legitimate work such as company registrations because it means representing organized-crime bosses. "These days, their slogan is 'come away from the shade'," says the leading member of the Azeri diaspora. "They all wear white collars and ties, and have the best lawyers working for them," he adds. "That's not a secret."

Some law-enforcement officials now fear the influx of criminal gangs has become unstoppable. The proliferation of heroin addiction, say police, has triggered such a sharp rise in drug-related crime that police now have little time to deal with much else. In Nakhodka last year a heroin addict broke into an apartment and strangled an eight-year-old boy while his parents were out. By the time police caught him, he had exchanged his loot--a TV and a videocassette recorder--for a single dose of heroin.

Prosecutor Sergei says he and his colleagues now spend most of their time handling such cases. "I have several friends who have become heroin users. There are lots of them in Vladivostok today, many of them from good families," he says. "Three years ago maybe one in 10 cases we handled were related to drugs. Now it's every second case. I'm sick of junkies."


Rampant organized crime in the Russian Far East makes it hard for regular businesses to operate and is a powerful lure to Central Asian and Caucasian newcomers. Although many of the major smuggling lines are dominated by Russians, non-Russians are establishing a strengthening toehold.

Led by Russian mafia and Japanese yakuza gangs, a car-smuggling racket in the Russian Far East was last year responsible for the theft of 63,000 mainly luxury cars in Japan, according to Japan's national police agency. Estimates for the value of the stolen vehicles reach as high as $2 billion.

Dominated by Russian groups, seafood smuggling is stripping the Bering Sea of fish worth $4 billion a year, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). In 2001, Japan imported roughly $1 billion worth of seafood caught illegally by Russian boats, the Japan Fisheries Association says.

Chinese and Russian groups illegally fell 1.5 million cubic metres of timber a year worth some $300 million, the WWF says. Much of it ends up in China and South Korea.

Central Asian and Caucasian gangs have been shipping large quantities of heroin to the Russian Far East since about 1998, when Iran closed its border with Afghanistan and following a crackdown by Western agencies.

This article first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, May 30, 2002

More articles by Velisarios Kattoulas