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WASHINGTON, January 22 (By Carl Schreck for RIA Novosti) – Reputed crime kingpin Aslan Usoyan gained notoriety as a Russia-based mob boss before he was assassinated by a sniper in central Moscow last week, but his brethren in a legendary Eurasian criminal fraternity have been dipping their elaborately tattooed fingers in the US underworld for decades.
Several reputed “vory v zakone,” or “thieves-in-law”—members of a storied Soviet-borne criminal caste in which Usoyan, known as “Gramps Khasan,” was an ascendant figure—have set up shop in the United States since the fall of the Soviet Union, according to US law enforcement sources and organized crime experts.
The most notorious of these career criminals Vyacheslav Ivankov, a convicted Soviet felon nicknamed “Yaponchik,” or “Little Japanese,” for his vaguely Asiatic visage.
Ivankov, believed to have been crowned a “thief-in-law” during his time in the Soviet prison system, arrived in Brooklyn’s predominantly Russian-speaking Brighton Beach neighborhood around 1992.
Russian authorities reportedly alerted their US counterparts to Ivankov’s reputation as a powerful crime godfather, though Ivankov’s actual influence and criminal acumen became the subject of considerable debate among law enforcement officials, academics and journalists.
Ivankov was ultimately arrested by US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents in 1995 and convicted of trying to extort several million dollars from two Russian-speaking businessmen in New York City—becoming the first of two reputed “thieves-in-law” to be convicted of felonies in the United States.
In 2004 Ivankov was sent back to Russia, where he was acquitted of murder and lived for several years before meeting a fate similar to that of his fellow “thief-in-law” Usoyan last week: He was shot by a sniper while leaving a Moscow restaurant in July 2009 and died of his injuries three months later.
A second purported “thief-in-law” convicted of a crime in the United States was Armen Kazarian, an ethnic Armenian nicknamed “Pzo” who authorities say assisted an Armenian-American crime group that defrauded the US federal health insurance program Medicare to the tune of $100 million.
Kazarian was arrested along with dozens of other suspects, and he eventually pleaded guilty in 2011 to conspiracy to commit racketeering charges. US federal prosecutor Preet Bharara announced at the time that Kazarian was the first “thief-in-law” to be convicted of racketeering in the United States.
Kazarian is set to be sentenced in the case on Feb. 8, according to the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. The stipulated sentencing guidelines spelled out in the plea agreement range from 30 to 37 months.
Kazarian’s lawyer, Mark Geragos, has been quoted publically as saying he’s satisfied with the deal and that prosecutors had scant evidence tying his client to the Medicare fraud.
“Thieves-in-law” traditionally lived according to a so-called “thieves code” requiring them to completely eschew institutions, including the state, outside the criminal sphere. They were accorded a special role in the underworld, including as mediators for competing crime networks.
The US government’s indictment of Kazarian describes one incident in which he allegedly played the role of just such a criminal arbiter.
According to investigators, he traveled to New York to assist an associate whose friend had fallen into hot water with “a promoter of an overseas investment fraud scheme” over a $200,000 debt.
After speaking with another “thief-in-law” representing the promoter, Kazarian announced that the debt “would be erased,” the indictment alleges.
The indictment also suggests Kazarian was serious about ensuring he was treated with a certain level of respect given his status. In August 2010, federal investigators alleged, he and an associate “threatened to sodomize and kill an associate who had failed to show proper respect to Kazarian by repeatedly calling Kazarian while drunk.”
There are likely six to eight “thieves-in-law” currently based in the United States, according to Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University who has studied Soviet and post-Soviet organized crime for two decades.
Some of these individuals are ethnic Russians, but a majority hail from former Soviet republics along Russia’s southern border, including Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, Galeotti added, citing his discussions with law enforcement sources in both Russia and the United States.
These purported gangsters tend to exercise more caution stateside than they do in the post-Soviet landscape, where enlisting officials in criminal enterprises is significantly easier, Galeotti said.
“Precisely because they are aware that they are in a different country and law enforcement environment, they take great care not to get their hands dirty within US jurisdictions,” he said.
Prior to his murder last week, Usoyan was among the last of this criminal fraternity’s old guard, whose status was derived from hard prison time and a commitment to the tenets of the thieves code, according to Galeotti.
The colorful trappings are still there—the ornate tattoos, colorful nicknames like “The Boar” and “Bonzai”—but these days the title of “thief-in-law” can essentially be bought by men who have no interest in the relatively austere lifestyles of the brotherhood’s previous generations, Galeotti said.
“People are called ‘lords’ and ‘sirs’ in the United Kingdom, but no one says it’s a feudal society,” he said. “It’s somewhat of an empty honorific.”
Nonetheless, the US government is not taking this younger generation of purported criminals lightly.
Last June, the US Treasury Department announced the names of five alleged members of a “Eurasian crime syndicate” to be targeted for asset freezes in the United States in an effort “to protect the US financial system from the malign influence of transnational criminal organizations.”
These individuals—Temuri Mirzoyev, Koba Shemazashvili, Lasha Shushanashvili, Kakhaber Shushanashvili, and Vladimir Vagin—are widely believed to be “thieves-in-law,” and all have some connection to Usoyan, according to Galeotti.
Mirzoyev is thought by some to be Usyoan’s nephew, and the Russian newspaper Izvestia reported that he attended the fallen kingpin’s funeral outside Moscow over the weekend.
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