Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 6

The Shadow of Chechen Crime over Moscow

by Aleksandr Zhilin

"When I hear the heads of our power ministries assuring Muscovites that they are reliably protected against the intrigues of Dudaev militants, I feel bewildered. Those who make such statements are either unaware of the situation in Moscow or are deliberately telling lies. As a Chechen who has been living in Moscow for ten years now, I know well enough how rigidly my fellow countrymen control the capital of Russia," Salambek Aslakhanov told me. Aslakhanov infiltrated a Chechen criminal group as a secret service officer for a lengthy period of time. The information and documents he gave me prove that the war in Chechnya does have a criminal basis and that the war may spread to Moscow at any moment.

Chechen Criminal Groups in Moscow

At this moment, the criminal society in Moscow (better known to Muscovites as the "Chechen community") numbers approximately 3,000 people, some 200 of whom can be quickly mobilized into a well-armed, combat-ready unit. When assessing the extent of the influence of and the danger posed by this Chechen organized criminal group, one must also take into account the possibility of mobile groups of Chechen militants being moved to Moscow from Chechnya.

The Chechen group is one of the oldest among Moscow’s "ethnic" criminal gangs. By 1987, under the influence of both external and internal factors, the Chechen criminal group had developed into a well-organized community with rigid, centralized rule. In 1988, under leaders M. Atlangeriev ("Ruslan"), L. Altemirov ("Lecho-Lysy"), Kh-A. Nukhayev and N. Suleimanov ("Hoza"), the group organized a series of mafia-style clashes that pushed out the most influential local organized criminal gangs (the Lyubertsy, Solntsevo, and Balashikha gangs) out of Moscow and allowed the Chechens to occupy the dominant position.

Such tactics, however, ultimately led to the group’s defeat because a dominant criminal gang attracts public attention not just in one district, but in the whole country. This forces the law enforcement agencies to take decisive measures. The overtly anti-Russian position of the Chechen leadership, moreover, greatly contributed to the growth of a determinedly negative attitude among Russians toward Chechens in general and the Chechen criminal group in particular. As a result, in 1991 all of the ringleaders listed above were arrested and the once integral criminal community split into several groups with different leaders.

A document prepared in March 1993 by the Interior Ministry, however, contained the following forecast: "…despite the current disunity of the Chechen groups, one should not underestimate the force of Chechen tradition to unite and act together under emergency conditions, that is, we have to conclude that the Chechen groups will act as an integral whole in the largest operations and conflicts." Today it is clear that this forecast was 100 percent accurate.

According to information this author received from the secret services and Mr. Aslakhanov, the Chechen criminal group in Moscow is directed by Dudaev people and enjoys the support of certain forces in Moscow who are interested in continuing the war in Chechnya and disrupting the presidential election. The latter forces are composed of people who view the Chechen war as a means of colossal personal enrichment and who have an access to budget funds that finance both military actions and restoration efforts in Chechnya.

In late 1992 or early 1993, the Chechen criminal group began to specialize in economic crime, specifically in the area of finance. Events in the Caucasus, particularly in Chechnya, played a great role in this change of orientation, prompting various social groups and clans to look for big money to buy arms, food, and medicine. The Chechen criminal groups began to be focus their activities on obtaining large loans from commercial banks on the basis of fake contracts with existing and/or specially created phony firms in order to convert the money into cash and stealing it; taking control of commercial banks and firms (specifically, those with accounts abroad) in order to receive a percentage of their profits; participating in foreign economic activities, concluding deals with Western partners for the sale of oil, petrochemicals, timber, and other raw materials; and infiltrating commercial structures doing business with defense industry enterprises in order to participate in the sale of arms and strategic materials.

Former intelligence officer Aslakhanov believes that these illegal activities of the Chechen criminal group had the support of high-ranking Russian military officers and civil servants. According to his evidence, the billions of rubles received by Chechen criminals by means of fake payment orders were ultimately remitted to the foreign bank accounts of Russian officials and businessmen. The criminals receiving 8 percent as a commission for having implemented the operation. According to Aslakhanov, L. Altemirov, M. Atlangeriev, Kh-A. Nukhaev, and M. Talarov currently head the major criminal groups and remain the most dangerous people in the Chechen community in Moscow.

Discouraging Western Investors

"The sources of the Moscow-based Chechen mafia’s profits are not limited to extortion and violent crime. For more than two years now, fulfilling the orders of Djohar Dudaev, they have engaged in activities designed to scare off foreign investors and businessmen who arrive in Russia seeking to organize businesses," Salambek Aslakhanov told me. "It is precisely for this purpose," he continued, "that Dudaev’s emissaries took a number of prestigious hotels under their full control. The Chechen mafia thus ‘monitors’ all foreign businessmen who arrive in Russia and influences them by using both ‘psychological’ and ‘physical’ methods of pressure. This conclusion can be easily verified. Just go to the Slavyanskaya Hotel and introduce yourself as an American businessman to the hotel administration. In the next two days (or even sooner), your only desire will be to run away as far as possible or to accept the conditions suggested by the bandits: to share your profits with them. Otherwise, they will simply kill you or your relatives."

Salambek Aslakhanov told me that White House plans called for Bill Clinton’s delegation to stay in the "Slavyanskaya" Hotel during the visit of the U.S. president to Moscow. However, the Chechen criminal group was severely opposed to the plan and the American president and his entourage encountered serious problems.

Luxurious Cars for Dudaev Agents

"I will not be revealing any big secret," Salambek Aslakhanov remarked, "If I tell you that the majority of sound foreign enterprises, joint ventures, and foreign representative offices in Moscow suffer from pressure exerted by Chechen organized criminal groups. In their ‘business’ of intimidating foreigners, these gangsters often try to obtain ‘cover’ from Moscow government officials. Interestingly, the gangsters limited themselves to collecting contributions from foreign companies before the war in Chechnya began. However, beginning last year, they have started forcing foreign representatives to leave Moscow. They do so by order of Djohar Dudaev, who said: "Western firms must be made to forget about the possibility of cooperating with Russia."

One graphic example of this policy is the war that Dudaev agents declared against the Moscow representative office of Marubeni Corporation (a large Japanese company) and "Auto-San," a joint venture set up by the latter company in Moscow. The Auto-San joint venture was established in late 1988 by Mosavtalegtrans (Moscow Company for Light Car Transport) and Marubeni Corporation. Mosavtolegtrans provided 51 percent of the initial capital by contributing a former automotive service combine facility at 29 Grokholsky Lane; Marubeni provided $2 million. Magomed Merov, the former chief engineer of Mosavtolegtrans, was the director of the joint venture until 1991. Upon the recommendation of the vice chairman of the Moscow government I. Ordzhonikidze, Merov in 1991 became deputy head of the Passenger Transport Committee of the Moscow government.

There, under the pretext of seeking to revive Moscow’s taxi service, Merov suggested that Mercedes cars be purchased for the city of Moscow. In order to raise the money to pay for the cars, Mr. Merov (with the sanction of Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and then Russian prime minister I. Silayev) sold several thousand tons of gasoline from the Moscow government’s reserve to Austria. Approximately 30 Mercedes were purchased for this money. At present, some of these cars are being used by the private firm Liga, of which Mr. Merov is one of the founders, while the remaining cars are used as official cars for members of the Moscow government.

After the Mercedes project had been implemented, Mr. Merov quit his job with the city government and became head of the Mosavtalegtrans Association. He planned to have Mosavtalegtrans unite all taxi services and parking stations in Moscow. Oddly, a municipal enterprise with the same name (Mosavtalegtrans) and the same plans also exists in Moscow. The latter is headed by a Mr. Yershov, whose apparatus consists of three persons. In fact, both enterprises enjoy unrestricted access to the hard currency payments that Auto-San remits to its cofounder, the Mosavtalegtrans company. The result is that the money is misappropriated and used for purposes other than those designated (for example, to finance numerous foreign trips of Moscow government officials or to procure cars for criminal groups).

Representatives from Marubeni Corporation are now concerned by Mr. Merov’s attempts to "privatize" part of the Russian side’s initial capital in the joint venture. Thus, in December 1993 the Moscow Property Committee circulated an official letter stating that the committee was the legal successor to "Mosavtolegtrans’s" capital share in "Auto-San." To the great surprise of the Japanese, Merov then used his connections in the Moscow government to have a mayoral resolution drafted which transferred 27 percent of the Russian side’s 51 percent of Auto-San capital to Merov personally. The Japanese were bewildered. As a rule, Russian capital shares in enterprises with foreign participation are transferred to the management of the relevant division of the State Property Committee. The Japanese could not understand why Auto-San should be an exception to the general rule. Marubeni held consultations with eminent lawyers from both Japan and Russia, discovering (and later proving) that the Moscow mayor’s resolution on Auto-San contradicted Russian law.

When Merov realized that his first attempt at "privatization" had failed, he decided to approach the problem from a different angle. According to information available to the author, another resolution on Auto-San is currently being drafted by the office of the Moscow mayor. This resolution, which also contradicts Russian law, has been prepared at the initiative of Mr. Merov with the approval of Mr. Ordzhonikidze.

Now in its second year, Merov’s scheming has destabilized the internal environment at Auto-San, perplexed the Japanese, and has undoubtedly discouraged further investment in the Russian economy on the part of the Marubeni Corporation. Seeking to clarify the situation, the Marubeni Corporation has more than once sent letters to the Moscow Property Committee requesting that the Auto-San joint venture be re-registered, all to no avail. Judging by the verbal statements of certain Moscow Property Committee officials, moreover, Auto-San will under no circumstances be granted a legal re-registration unless the Japanese accept the proposal advanced by Merov and Ordzhonikidze.

The Japanese at present do not dare to openly fight the arbitrariness of the authorities because certain members of the Moscow government, including Mr. Merov (who still considers himself a member of the Moscow government), are directly involved. The explanation is simple: Mr. Merov enjoys the support of Moscow-based Chechen criminal groups. When Merov was general director of Auto-San, he said more than once that he did not fear any criminal groups because both Auto-San and he himself were guarded by Chechens. This "protection" soon caused the enterprise to become a hangout for Chechen gangsters. Japanese employees of Marubeni Corporation who worked at the enterprise — in particular, Marubeni’s former general director Ye. Yamazaki — more than once tried to convince Merov that he should stop using the services of Chechens and put an end to the practice of paying "bonuses" to criminals. However, their pleas only led Merov to ask his Chechen "friends" to intimidate the Japanese and their family members. Given this situation and the fact that the principal clients of Auto-San are the Japanese embassy and representative offices of Japanese companies and other foreign companies in Moscow, Marubeni Corporation is considering the possibility of closing the enterprise out of concern for its business reputation. If reasons for closing the enterprise explained above were not sufficient, there is also an "economic factor" that makes Auto-San unprofitable and impedes is further growth, as the following facts demonstrate:

· Moscow-based Chechen criminal groups enjoy free use and service of approximately sixteen Auto-San cars;

· Bonuses are paid to the Chechens who "guard" the facility;

· Mr. Merov, despite the fact that he quit his job at Auto-San in 1991, is still paid a salary of $710 per month, annual bonuses in the amount of three months’ wages, and enjoys the right to use cars belonging to the enterprise free of charge;

· Two members of the Auto-San staff are assigned to Mr. Merov as drivers, and their wages, along with those of his bodyguards, are paid by the joint venture;

· 1,500 DM are allocated every month to finance so-called "public relations activities" such as dinner parties for friends, Moscow government officials, and other important people;

· Mr. Merov still has his own office at the joint venture, an office that was furnished and remodeled at the expense of Auto-San;

· The joint venture paid for repairs on Mr. Merov’s apartment on Serafimovich street (this apartment building is known as the "House of Old Bolsheviks"), but in the accounting ledgers, these expenses were recorded as payment for repair to the Krasnokholmsky Bridge;

· The joint venture is forced to rent furnished flats for Mr. Merov and his numerous relatives and friends from the North Caucasus (a luxurious suite in the Volga Hotel, for example, costs the enterprise $1,000 per month);

· Auto-San was forced this year to grant Merov "material aid" lump sum payments of $3,000 (to finance a family trip to Spain) and $1,000 (to finance Merov’s dental work in Austria), respectively.

Representatives of the Russian intelligence services are requesting that appropriate measures be taken to protect the Japanese employees of Auto-San and Marubeni Corporation from the encroachments of Mr. Merov and Chechen criminal groups, to ensure the conditions necessary for the normal functioning of Auto-San, and to guarantee control over disbursements from the enterprise’s hard currency fund for such purposes as dividends, remittances to the state budget, etc.

The last straw was a scandal which erupted at Auto-San’s repair shop on February 15. Aslanbek B. Shidayev, an ethnic Chechen who lives in the Ukraine Hotel, Room No. 1823, and nephew of eminent Chechen authority Salaudi (the head of the private guard firm "Vityaz") came to Auto-San to pick up his rental car, which was being repaired. When he learned that the repairs had not been completed, Shidayev went berserk. He threatened to chop off the head of Ilya Demirov, the Auto-San Service Department head, as punishment for the delay. Shidayev explained that he needed a car badly to ride to Grozny to fight against Russian soldiers.

"Dudaev’s agents feel quite at home in Moscow today. They ride luxurious foreign cars with the license plates of joint ventures, foreign companies, or even embassies. They carry not only small arms, but machine guns, grenades, and grenade launchers. They make no secret of their connections with the [Russian] Defense Ministry and other "very special" organizations. They spend their leisure time with high-ranking state officials and generals at dachas and other such places. Documents about the activities of Dudaev agents in Moscow are filed in multi-volume folders in the Interior Ministry and the Moscow Division of the Federal Security Service, but these folders only gather dust on the shelves. It appears that a macabre game is being played with Dudaev: On one side are moans, blood, death, and destruction. On the other, colossal money, the corruption of Moscow’s bureaucratic apparatus, and a mutual cover-up," Salambek Aslakhanov informed me.

Aleksandr Zhilin is editor of the security affairs department of Moskovskie Novosti.

Translated by A. Kondorsky