Tuesday, 24 November 2009

New gang wars rock underworld

Mafia turf wars could be on their way back - but unlike the carnage of the 90s, the new model is likely to be restricted to specific rackets, such as gambling and drugs.
The fatal shooting of Shabtai Kalmanovich, a convicted former KGB spy and alleged ally of gangland legend Yaponchik, is being widely seen as the first volley of machine-gun fire in a new underworld spat.
But the new battles are not about replacing Yaponchik, according to Mark Galeotti, an expert on the Russian underworld who teaches at New York University. Instead the sudden ban on gambling and booming drugs trade are set to be new flashpoints.
"Yaponchik was by now an anachronism with no real clout," Galeotti said. "His death was more a symptom of rising tensions and the decline of the old ‘social contract' of the underworld. On the other hand there are certainly those, especially from the old ‘vor v zakone' fraternity, who will gladly avenge him."
Kalmanovich's death has been linked to an "ethnic gang" involved in running Moscow's markets - another area where the authorities have recently been cracking down on illegal activity, closing Cherkizovsky and raiding Luzhniki.
RIA Novosti quoted an unnamed police source saying that investigators believed he was shot on the orders of a criminal gang which controls part of a market Kalmanovich wanted to buy.
"I do think a new round of turf wars, with associated killings, is quite likely," Galeotti added in an email. "The new bonanza of illegal gambling, the rising drug profits and the effects of the economic slowdown have all destabilised the old underworld order and it is time for a settling of old scores and, above all, a restructuring."
Both Kalmanovich - gunned down in rush-hour traffic on Krasnopresnenskaya Naberezhnaya - and Yaponchik, shot by a sniper as he left a restaurant, died very public deaths.
But there is little for ordinary Muscovites to fear, even if the violence escalates below the surface.
"This is essentially a war within the underworld," said Galeotti. "There still seems to be an awareness within the gangs that the state will not accept indiscriminate violence of the Yeltsin era variety, where car bombs and drive-by shootings were commonplace. Assassinations will tend to be more precise."
Kalmanovich was also closely involved with basketball, where he owned the Russian and European women's champions Spartak-Vidnoye, having previously run into controversy at UMMC Yekaterinburg in a passport scandal.
A theory that Kalmanovich's death was related to his sporting interests was quickly bounced out of court by Russian basketball chief Sergei Chernov, who worked with him during the Russian women's national team's World Championship silver medal campaign in 2006.
"In sport, people fight it out on the pitch. I am convinced this savagery has nothing to do with sport," Chernov told RIA Novosti, going on to say he had met Kalmanovich earlier on the day of his death. "We talked for about half an hour and I saw no shadow of anxiety or nerves."
My life is something that normal people only see at the movies," Kalmanovich once said in an interview. His CV includes a stint in an Israeli jail over KGB spying, leading three clubs to Euroleague basketball success and becoming a friend to the stars.
Born in Kaunas, Lithuania, in 1947, he and his family emigrated to Israel in the early 70s, where he studied engineering in Jerusalem and started trading and construction businesses.
In 1988 Kalmanovich was sentenced to nine years for spying for the KGB, but was released in 1993 and returned to Russia to set up a business with popular singer Josif Kobzon. He promoted concerts by the likes of Michael Jackson, modernised Tishinsky Market and was director of Dorogomilovsky Market.
In 1996 he became co-owner and manager of Zalgiris basketball club in his native Lithuania, guiding them to the men's Euroleague title in 1999. He later became the first man to lead men's and women's teams to Euro glory, seeing first UMMC Yekaterinburg and later Spartak-Vidnoye take the women's title.
Kalmanovich married three times, including to basketball player Anna Arkhipova.

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