The Crime Bosses of Crimea

The links between crime and politics in Russia’s annexed enclave in the Ukraine

by Taras Kuzio

Western media are widely reporting that self-declared Crimean leader Sergei Aksyonov ( pictured left) was an organised crime boss in the 1990s, with the nickname ‘Goblin.’ The link between crime and politics in Crimea seems to have caught Western media off guard, and yet abundant evidence of such links has been available for a long time from a variety of sources, including US diplomatic cables.

In the 1990s, Crimea was a major source of organised crime, and had the largest number of murders of any Ukrainian region, according to former Police Chief Yuriy Lutsenko, with Donetsk coming second. Not coincidentally, Crimea and Donetsk were the strongholds of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions.

Links between business, politics and crime in the former USSR began to surface in the second half of the 1980s, at the same time as Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev liberalised the economy. Crime exploded in three regions of Ukraine – Crimea, Donetsk and Odesa – where there were huge profits to be made from trade, tourism, property and the export of raw materials. During this legal vacuum, and at a time of the disintegration of one state (USSR) and a yet-to-be-built Ukraine, individuals such as Yanukovych, Aksyonov and their Donetsk and Crimean allies literally fought their way to the top. Those who survived the bloodshed, by the late 1990s were already attempting to transform themselves into biznesmeni.

Sergei Taruta was appointed Donetsk governor by Kiev’s then-revolutionary leaders because although co-director of the Industrial Union of Donbas, he had never joined the Party of Regions, and supported the pro-Western opposition. In 2010, Yulia Tymoshenko’s election headquarters were located in Kiev’s Hyatt Hotel that he owns.

A cable from the US Embassy in Kiev reported that Taruta had dismissed the whole Donetsk-Regions group, saying ‘they are all looters’ – as seen in the massive asset and budget stripping that occurred under Yanukovych. Former National Security and Defence Council Secretary Volodymyr Horbulin told US Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst that the Party of Regions was ‘notable for its inclusion of criminal and anti-democracy figures.’ Another cable described the Party of Regions as, ‘long a haven for DONETSK-based mobsters and oligarchs,’ led by ‘DONETSK CLAN godfather Rinat Akhmetov.’

Akhmetov (who has close business ties to Yanukovych going back to the 1990s) backed him to the ignominious end, and has issued timid statements during the Maidan protests and the Crimean invasion.

The Party of Regions elected organised crime leaders to the Ukrainian and Crimean parliaments and local government. In the March 2006 elections to the Crimean parliament and local councils, hundreds of candidates who had ‘problems with the law,’ according to then Interior Minister Lutsenko, ran in the election blocs ‘For Union!’ and ‘For Yanukovych!’ Many of these candidates were, like Aksyonov, members of the Seilem organised crime gang, such as its leader Aleksandr Melnyk who was elected in the ‘For Yanukovych!’ bloc. Yanukovych reportedly told a Party of Regions deputy who criticized this alliance with organised crime that, ‘I take responsibility for him [Melnyk]’ ; and Prime Minister Yanukovych asked Police Chief Lutsenko to not touch ‘my Sasha’ (Melnyk).

The corrupt Prosecutor-General’s office assisted in protecting these ties between politics, business and crime. Former Deputy Prosecutor-General Renat Kuzmin ensured Melnyk evaded justice, after the Party of Regions lobbied the prosecutor’s office not to press charges. Lutsenko said, ‘Having all the evidence connecting the (Seilem) gang to murders’ Kuzmin ‘releases the man who Yanukovych shelters, the head of an organised crime gang.’ Lutsenko told the US Embassy in Kyiv (Kiev) that the Seilem organised crime gang had been responsible in the 1990s for 52 contract murders, including one journalist, two police officers, 30 businessmen and 15 organised crime competitors.

Kuzmin ‘rehabilitated’ another of Ukraine’s most notorious crime bosses, Givi Nemsadze, who led an organized crime gang that committed over a hundred murders. In 2010, after Yanukovych came to power, criminal charges against Nemsadze were closed.

In the second half of the 1990s, when Yanukovych was Governor of Donetsk, Nemsadze’s organised crime group had worked for him, destroying a rival gang led by Yevhen Kushnir who was blamed for the murders of Donetsk crime boss Akhat Bragin (‘Alek the Greek’), and Ukraine’s then wealthiest oligarch Yevhen Shcherban in 1995-1996. Ethnic ties from Russian Tatarstan connected Bragin, Shcherban and Akhmetov; and a large Islamic school and mosque was opened in Donetsk in the late 1990s, in honour of Bragin, and paid for by Akhmetov.

From 1997, when Yanukovych became Donetsk governor until 1999, 24 Kushnir gang members were murdered and eight imprisoned while none of the Namsadze gang were arrested. Melnyk and the Seilem groups, which included Aksyonov, provided local protection for the business interests of Yanukovych and Donetsk oligarch Rinat Akhmetov. Subsequently, the Seilem and Nemsadze gangs defeated their Kushnir and the Bashmaki rivals. In Donetsk, organised crime integrated itself under the krysha (Russian for ‘roof’ and widely used as a term for official protection) of the Party of Regions ; whereas in the Crimea they established Russian nationalist parties such as Russian Unity led by Aksyonov.

The Donetsk prosecutor’s office in the 1990s and the following first half of the decade was led by Kuzmin, ousted Prosecutor-General Viktor Pshonka and former Prosecutor-Generals Hennady Vasyliev and Oleksandr Medvedko, all of whom had strong ties to the Party of Regions. With a background in covering up gangland murders on behalf of political and business bosses, it is little wonder there was no rule of law in Ukraine. Perversely, Kuzmin led the criminal cases against Tymoshenko upon whom he tried to pin the Shcherban murder.

Criminal ties to business and politics did not stop there. Gas tycoon Dmitry Firtash, who was detained in Vienna on Thursday 14 March, and Akhmetov gained enormously from Yanukovych’s presidency. Firtash admitted in December 2008 to US Ambassador Taylor that he had been assisted in entering the energy business by mafia don Semyon Mogilevich (pictured above), who is wanted by the FBI. Mogilevich protected the energy market, and worked with Russian leaders until 2008, just ahead of the [opaque] gas intermediary RosUkrEnergo (45% owned by Firtash) being removed in the January 2009 gas contract, negotiated by Vladimir Putin and Tymoshenko.

In his capacities as Prime Minister and President, Yanukovych strengthened the already close ties between crime and energy. The 2006-2007 Yanukovych government signed an oil deal whereby the four owners in Vanco Prykerchenska included Akhmetov’s DTEK (Donbas Fuel-Energy holding), Party of Regions deputy Vasyl Khmelnytskyy’s Austrian-registered Integrum Technologies, and Russian oligarch Yevgeniy Novitsky’s Shadowlight Investments. A US cable from Moscow and other sources described Novitsky as leader of the Solntsevo criminal gang that provided protection to gas intermediaries such as Itera, that had been operated in the 1990s by Gazprom. The alliance between Yanukovych, Donetsk oligarchs such as Akhmetov, Party of Regions bosses and Crimean Russian nationalists such as Aksyonov, was always close; with the appointment of Aksyonov as ‘leader’ of Crimea, those ties will only become closer.

Editor’s note : On March 14, 2014. authorities in Austria arrested leading Ukrainian business man Dmitry Firtash ( cited in this story, above) on bribery charges.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 licence. It was originally published on the UK site OpenDemocracy here.

Footnote : The author, Taras Kuzio, is Research Associate, Centre for Political and Regional Studies, Canadian Institute for Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta ; and is Non-Resident Fellow at the School of Advanced International Relations at Johns Hopkins University. The biography available here notes that “in June 1998 he was appointed director of the NATO Information and Documentation Center in Kiev. He served as a long-term observer for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe during the 1998 and 2002 parliamentary elections in the Ukraine.”