Good news on Russian crime

It’s very easy to find bad news about law and order in Russia.

Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev boldly claims that “bribe taking, abuse of power, corruption” in the police are a thing of the past – and within days has to back down, saying that he only meant in some places.

A former cop is charged with being part of the operation to kill journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Researchers from the General Prosecutor’s Office Academy openly question upbeat official crime statistics. They claim that, instead of a 13% fall last year, there was actually a 2.4% rise.

At the same time, though, progress is genuinely being made.

Efforts are being made to tackle the culture of corruption within the police and judiciary. Despite the regular toll of murders and beatings – Russia remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a journalist outside war zones – there is still active crime reporting and scrutiny of police abuses in the press and the blogosphere.

This also reflects public resentment. It is striking that the Communists and Mikhail Prokhorov – not usually on the same page – have both promised action on corruption.

One example of good news is last week’s conviction of Sergei Butorin, the organized crime boss known as “Osya.” He received a life sentence for his role in twenty-nine murders and attempted murders.

Interior Ministry press releases often talk of the arrests of “organized crime leaders” when they mean some guy who had a couple of thugs working for him. Butorin, though, was the real deal. He was first a member and then after 1994 the boss of Moscow’s Orekhovo gang. Even by the standards of the “wild nineties,” Butorin’s boys were unusually active and violent. They specialized in extortion and were happy to take on other gangs.

Orekhovo was responsible for the murder of would-be Georgian godfather of Moscow, Otari Kvantrishvili. He was shot by Butorin’s right-hand man, Alexei Sherstobitov, “Lyosha the Soldier.”

By 1999, Butorin had made too many enemies. In a move out of Hollywood, he faked his own death, had cosmetic surgery and fled to Spain. He was arrested there in 2001 on firearms charges. After eight years in a Spanish prison, he was extradited to Russia in 2010.

In some past cases, like that of Vyacheslav “Ivankov” Yaponchik, extradited from the USA in 2004, criminals have either been set free or exonerated in crudely-rigged trials. By contrast, Butorin faced what seems to have been a serious, wellmanaged trial and was found guilty.

The conviction is more than just a tale of one man getting his just desserts. It says encouraging things about Russian law enforcement.

First of all, senior criminals can be tried and convicted. Butorin had made many enemies but he also had allies within the underworld who tried to help him. Besides, he is not the first major godfather to be convicted of late. Tariel “Taro” Oniani, for example, was sentenced to ten years in prison last year.

Second, that Russian and foreign cops can cooperate. Russia’s constitutional bar on extraditing its own citizens has been a problem. Perhaps a greater one has been a mistrust of the Russian police by their counterparts – but one of the untold success stories of recent years has been improving police cooperation. Not only are Russian gangsters arrested abroad being extradited and properly tried, but the sharing of intelligence and coordination is improving.

The criminals are still able to cooperate frighteningly easily without having to worry about laws and politics. And there is still a huge task ahead if Russia is seriously to master its organized crime problem. But the news is not all bad and signs of progress are there. 

Mark Galeotti is Clinical Professor of Global Affairs at New York University’s SCPS Center for Global Affairs. His blog, “In Moscow’s Shadows,” can be read at: http://

Read other articles of the print issue “The Moscow News #70”

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