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Russia: The Kremlin Strikes at the Tambov Group

6 MINS READSep 6, 2007 | 17:38 GMT
Yuri GRIPA/AFP/Getty Images
Summary
The head of one of Russia's most powerful suspected criminal enterprises, the Tambov group, was arrested in late August. The group is known for its powerful government connections and control over key pieces of St. Petersburg's economy. The last time a power vacuum opened up among organizations like this one in St. Petersburg, it led to a decade of very bloody fighting. This time, however, Russian President Vladimir Putin has moved to control most of these groups by institutionalizing them, which allows him to begin the daunting task of cracking down where he sees fit.
The head of the Tambov group, Vladimir Barsukov (also known as Vladimir Kumarin, or just Kumarin), was arrested in late August at his St. Petersburg home in a stealth operation involving dozens of Special Purpose Police Squad officers. Barsukov faces charges of forming a criminal gang, as well as carrying out execution-style contract killings, murders and other crimes. The Tambov group is suspected of being one of the most ruthless and powerful organized crime enterprises in Russia, and Barsukov's colorful rap sheet consisting of underground operations in St. Petersburg dates back more than 20 years. Barsukov's arrest comes during the decline of the power of his government contacts and the weakening of his Tambov group network as members are either sacked or arrested. Since Russian President Vladimir Putin took office in 2000, he has reined in many of Russia's organized crime groups — not by exterminating them but by institutionalizing them to keep order. As Putin prepares to leave office, he is looking to tie up the loose ends. Russian politicians are terrified by the idea of confronting any of Russia's powerful suspected organized crime groups because the country's organized crime community not only is considered the most ruthless in the world but also controls a large share of the Russian economy. The Tambov group is a classic example of a suspected organized crime enterprise that emerged from the chaos following the fall of the Soviet Union. Starting in the Tambov region, the group moved to St. Petersburg in the mid-1980s just as others were attempting to secure control of Russia's second-largest city. A huge turf war erupted in 1989, leading to a bloody armed conflict that lasted 10 years. During that time, the Tambov group took over the underground fuel trade in Russia — meaning Barsukov watched over fuel sales during the fuel crisis of the mid-1990s and then ran actual gasoline stations and fuel distribution firms afterward. Moreover, the group staked its claim on trade from four of Russia's ports: St. Petersburg, Kaliningrad, Arkhangelsk and Murmansk. The group gained enormous amounts of money and power by controlling 80 percent of transit from these ports, as well as the lion's share of taxes on alcohol and tobacco imports and timber exports. Personally, Barsukov is closely tied to some powerful Kremlin politicians, mainly Alexei Mordashov, chief of steel giant Severstal, and Railway Minister Vladimir Yakunin. Putin himself is very familiar with Barsukov, since the president was involved in St. Petersburg politics for years. Russian politicians are terrified by the idea of confronting any of Russia's powerful suspected organized crime groups because the country's organized crime community not only is considered the most ruthless in the world but also controls a large share of the Russian economy. Most Russian politicians have found it much easier to align with or ignore organized crime than to work against it. But under Putin, organized crime — especially in St. Petersburg and Moscow — has been changing. Since he has consolidated power as president, Putin considers organized crime and Barsukov relics of a bygone era. Organized crime groups have, in short, been institutionalized — if not completely swallowed by politicians or legal institutions. For example, until recently, Barsukov worked legally as vice president of the Petersburg Fuel Co. The Tambov group's control over the four ports it once claimed also has changed; the group still receives large kickbacks on imports and exports, but it does not own the ports and is instead considered port "security." However, this does not mean that the Tambov group, or any of Russia's other suspected organized crime groups, is not still highly active. The Tambov group recently decided it wanted to expand its hold on regional energy, and perhaps even beyond. In the past few months, the group has muscled its way into at least 13 new companies in St. Petersburg. This likely was what triggered the government to finally move against Barsukov, since the Kremlin covets energy holdings more than almost anything else. More generally, this is about returning some very lucrative assets — some of which the Tambov group does hold — back to state control, which is key to Putin's overall objective for Russia. Barsukov's arrest could still create a power vacuum that leads to fighting within the Tambov group, or a rival group could try to take advantage of the situation. The move was risky on Putin's part, especially since he does not want to spark a massive street war in his hometown — like the one 10 years ago — as Russia's elections approach. Putin orchestrated the arrest with Russian General Prosecutor Yuri Chaika, Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev and Federal Security Service (FSB) head Nikolai Patrushev. Barsukov's arrest could still create a power vacuum that leads to fighting within the Tambov group, or a rival group could try to take advantage of the situation. Circumstances like this are what led to the previous fighting in St. Petersburg, so the FSB will want to pre-empt such violence by cracking down in the city and closely monitoring the Tambov group's movements. Though the FSB is coordinating this effort, it is collaborating with other government security forces. One repercussion that cannot be prevented through security clampdowns is the reaction from Barsukov's government contacts. Many of those government members — especially Yakunin — count on the Tambov group's protection and power. Though he was once thought to be a possible successor to Putin, Yakunin seems to be on his way out, considering that he has been continually passed over in the past year for larger positions (and considering the arrest of Barsukov, his ally). But it will be up to Putin to control the members of his government. It remains to be seen whether Putin will crack down on other suspected criminal organizations. Decapitating one such group is one thing, but any effort to eradicate the powerful organized crime movement in Russia will create a bloody mess. Moscow is the only other city that has a crime group with enough power to matter, but Putin certainly would not want to start such a nasty battle, since Russia is already starting to feel the tremors of a change in power. However, once the political dust has settled, Putin could very well implement such a crackdown in order to continue his full and formidable consolidation of the Russian state.

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