Organised crime in the FSU and its Kazakh connections/I: the cases of Tokhtar Tuleshov and Zhusupbek Bartikeev

Mukhtar Ablyazov: Kazakhstan’s And Kyrgyzstan’s Own Guy Fawkes Once More At Large

The USSR still exists – only now it refers not to a state structure but to Union of Snipers, Scavengers and Racketeers. While new national borders have been created by newly independent states in the former Soviet realm, criminal organisations, still united in a huge, worldwide operating syndicate known as the “Circle of Brothers” including large numbers of extremely dangerous mobsters overcame them virtually overnight and now represent a practically unmatched danger to societies – including that of Kazakhstan.

by Charles van der Leeuw, writer, news analyst

Lately, the man thought to have been behind “popular protests” against (badly needed) land reforms allowing foreign individuals and enterprises to lease farmland in Kazakhstan for a maximum period of 25 years has been sentenced to 21 years behind bars. But accusations go a bit further than just that. It now appears that with Tokhtar Tuleshov out of circulation, there is a power vacuum in Kazakhstan in the country’s business maintained by the notorious Russian Bratskiy Krug, or Brothers’ Circle, which is the nickname for Russia’s organised crime structure – even though other former Soviet republics have considerable clout within its upper ranks.

“Tokhtar Tuleshov, best known for running Shymkentpivo, one of the former Soviet republic’s largest breweries, was subjected to a closed trial before a military court in the capital Astana, and reporters were only allowed to hear the verdict”, a news report by Reuters posted on November 7 was to read. “Tuleshov has been imprisoned since January but Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee accused him in June of inciting and bankrolling a series of protests against land reforms in April and May which forced Nazarbayev to delay the planned changes. On Monday, Judge Yerbol Akhmetzhanov read out the verdict and a long list of crimes for which Tuleshov had been convicted. Those included planning to violently seize power in the nation of 17 million and running an international criminal group involved in murder and kidnapping. It was unclear whether Tuleshov had pleaded guilty, and his family’s lawyer declined to comment.”

A number of alleged accomplices were held as well, including former First Deputy Prosecutor General and former member of the Constitutional Council Ilias Bahtybayev, former chief of South Kazakhstan Region Police Department Major-General Hibratulla Doskaliyev, former First Vice Chief of South Region Police Department Colonel Saken Aitbekov, commanders of the military units of the Defense Ministry of Kazakhstan Colonel Bekzat Zhumin and Colonel Kairat Pernebayev – according to National Security Committee’s spokesman Ruslan Karasev as quoted by various news agencies. Each of the latter two is in command of a major-size military base in Kazakhstan. These are not small fish and point, though yet to be confirmed, at a serious threat indeed. The last time such a threat occurred to Kazakhstan was in 2002, when a group within the National Security Council started to prepare what should have ended up in an armed coup against President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his government. Preparations included armed underground cells, misinformation channels, and a network of “social agents” mobilising lower social classes and extorting money from businessmen. The group was detected and dismantled the same year but it took four years for information to reach the public domain – not in the least because the leader of the movement appeared to be the head of state’s son-in-law Rakhat Aliyev. The main culprit hanged himself in a Viennese prison while awaiting trial for multiple murder. But a number of his close associates were acquitted

Prison walls are no barrier

The main culprit’s discretion is understandable if one considers that he appears to have extremely dangerous friends in the highest criminal echelons in the region, who dislike to hear their names mentioned in court sessions and for whom prison walls are no barrier where it comes to eliminating people, most of all fellow criminals, against whom they have a grudge. “Tokhtar Tuleshov is suspected in the funding of the transnational criminal organisation the Brothers’ Circle as well as the establishment and management of a permanent armed group,” the Russian newsreel CrimeRussia wrote in a recently posted report on the affair. Referring to the press service of the National Security Committee of Kazakhstan, the report indicates how Tuleshov “… regularly transferred large sums to the accounts of members of the Brothers’ Circle through Nozin Dzhumayev, also known as Maxim Bukhara, Gafur Rakhimov, nicknamed Black Ghafoor, and Ilyas Sultanov (Dyadya Ilyas).” Among the beneficiaries of the transfers the article mentions Zachary Kalash, the brothers Lyosha and Kakhaber Shushanashvili and their right hand Koba Shemazashvilli, Temuriy Mirzoyev (Timur Sverdlovsk, nephew of the late kingpin “Grandpa Hassan”), Vladimir Vagin (known as Vagon), Vasily Khristoforov (alias Vasya), Kamchibek Kolbayev (Kolya Kyrgyz) and the latter’s henchmen Anapiyaev and Kassenov, Circle-founder Vladislav Leontyev (Vadim the White) and his three subordinates Lazar Shaybazyan, Alexander Manuilov and Alexey Zaitsev, and Gregory Lepsveridze (Leps), also figure on the list publicised by the national security service of Kazakhstan.

Gathering detailed, tangible information about the persons listed on what looks like a true criminals’ hit parade is harder than one would think. “Brothers’ Circle leader Temuri Mirzoyev has been identified as a crime boss in Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg), Russia,” an Italian author specialising in post-soviet crime named Marc Galeotti affirmed on his blog site In Moscow’s Shadows back in early 2012. “In September 2006, he was arrested along with another criminal figure during a gathering at a casino in Sochi, Russia. Brothers’ Circle member Vladimir Vagin has seven criminal convictions and has been wanted by Russian law enforcement since March 2009 on charges of attempted murder. He fled to the United Arab Emirates but escaped from their custody in March 2010 and disappeared. Brothers’ Circle member Lasha Shushanashvili was in overall charge of a criminal organization; his subordinates included his brother, Kakhaber Shushanashvili, and Koba Shemazashvili. Lasha Shushanashvili avoided being detained during a March 2010 Europe-wide law enforcement operation that resulted in the capture of Kakhaber Shushanashvili, but later was arrested in Greece in January 2012. Lasha Shushanashvili is wanted in Spain on several charges and in Georgia for extortion and acting as a criminal boss. In addition, he sent two assassins to meet his brother in Spain as part of an effort to murder a criminal rival. Brothers’ Circle member Koba Shemazashvili was Lasha Shushanashvili’s subordinate in his organized crime network and has been described as his “right-hand man.” Separately, he along with Kakhaber Shushanashvili assaulted two criminal rivals in the Netherlands. He was wanted by Spain on a variety of criminal charges, and in July 2011 he was arrested in Ukraine; he entered a Spanish prison in February 2012. Kakhaber Shushanashvili operates for or on behalf of Brothers’ Circle member Lasha Shushanashvili by serving as his subordinate in his criminal network. In March 2010, he was arrested in Spain as part of a Europe-wide law enforcement operation targeting a Georgian criminal organization. He oversaw funds that were collected, including through credit card fraud, from other Europe-based members of the network.”

“A very major and dangerous gangster”

About those directly involved in Tuleshov’s dealings, information remains most scant. Rakhimov, now in self-imposed exile in Dubai, is as important as he is enigmatic where details of his criminal activity are concerned. “Born on July 22, 1951, in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, as a youngster Rakhimov became fond of boxing. In the former Soviet Union sports were among the scarce areas where a citizen could achieve success coupled with fame and, a little bit of, wealth. Athletes participating in combat sports were, and still are today, among the most respected men in the country. Russia’s Mafia groups also enjoyed employing them as muscle. After his boxing career ended, Rakhimov took on coaching other fighters. He also became a businessman, which, in a country strife with corruption, intimidation, and where laws were meant to be broken or bended, usually meant becoming involved in nefarious operations,” one source relates – adding: “Rakhimov is one of the leaders of Uzbek organized crime with a specialty in the organized production of drugs in the countries of Central Asia. He has operated major international drug syndicates involving the trafficking of heroin. Former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, spoke up about Rakhimov’s alleged criminal activities as well. ‘He is one of the four or five most important people in the heroin trade in the world’, Murray told ABC News. ‘He’s absolutely a very major and dangerous gangster’.”

The Shushanashvili brothers turn up in a file concerning real estate swindle in their home base of Omsk. “Khabulda Shushubaev, a Deputy of the Omsk Regional Parliament and businessman, has been accused of swindling, illegal receipt of a credit, and embezzlement on an especially large scale. The investigation of this criminal case is completed, and it has been submitted to court,” CrimeRussia reported in October this year. “[…] According to the investigation, in the period of 2008–2013, Khabulda Shushubaev, then-actual head of RoKAS Limited Liability Company, had been collecting funds from investors to construct three residential buildings in Yasnaya Polyana (Clear Glade) neighborhood of Omsk. In total, Shushubaev has collected some 333 million rouble from individuals and legal entities and transferred over 100 million rubles out of that amount to companies officially belonging to his relatives and subordinates and controlled by him. Then he spent the money for purposes not related to the construction of the housing in any way – purchased a Land Rover and parts for it, rented advertisement stands, paid for use of a swimming pool, covered the cost of education for his brother, etc. As a result, 314 shareholders were deprived of their apartments.”

A bit too many headlines

More is known about Kamchybek Kolbayev, who together with his rivals Maksat Abakirov and Almas Bokushev, is considered the main chieftain of the Circle not just in Kyrgyzstan but region-wide. For a long time, Kolbayev was considered the successor of the most infamous among all Kyrgyz chief-mobsters, the late Ryspek Akmatbayev. With two convictions behind him, he never served time for a triple murder he was implicated in. After the 2005 revolution, he was able to get all criminal charges dropped and later became a member of parliament. In May 2006, a month after his election, he was gunned down by a contract killer. His brother, also a member of parliament, had been shot dead a year earlier while visiting a prison. As for Kolbayev, believed to be in charge of most drugs and arms trafficking, represent the most important link in “human trafficking” for forced prostitution between the Far East on one end and Turkey and the Arabian Peninsula on the other and for forced labour in various other parts of the world – apart from the usual racketeering, extortion and counterfeit trade, is also thought to rank high within the Bratskiy Krug.

Kolbayev saw his star ascend after the rise of Kurmanbek Bakiyev and family in 2005. He was reportedly briefly detained in 2010 shortly after the restoration and the installation of a parliamentary regime and escaped to Abu Dhabi, where he was arrested the following year on the request of the Kyrgyz government, but released again after a few months. His place in the Kyrgyz under world, however, became vacant as he had made a bit too many headlines to maintain the necessary discretion for it. Among those keen on succeeding him were Aziz Batukaev, who also escaped prison in 2013 and has been on the run ever since, and Almanbet Anapiyaev, who was murdered in Minsk in 2015 while also hiding from justice. But there are at least five pretenders who strive for Kolbayev’s “crown” today, which could lead to faction infighting in the higher echelons of organised crime in Kyrgyzstan. Their names are guessed at best, and there is reason to fear that they represent a new generation of crime chiefs, anonymous but all the more dangerous for it.

A struggle for power?

Tuleshov’s neutralisation is not the only recent blow dealt to the local branch of the Circle dealt by the Kazakh authorities. In late November this year, another criminal figurehead named Zhusupbek Bartikeyev, better known by his nickname Yeska, and two of his accomplices were convicted to 13 years in prison each for “creation of an organised criminal gang, extortion, financing a transnational criminal group and surreptitious obtaining of information,” in the words of a report posted by CrimeRussia on November 29. After his arrest in March when he was caught red-handed in an illegal transfer of black money, interrogations and further investigations showed that he had been working closely with a Russian mobster of Uzbek origin known as Zhora Tashkentskiy, his real name being Georgy Sorokin – pointing at direct links with the Bratskiy Krug.

The two important catches, as part of an overall crackdown on mobs and mobsters by the Kazakh authorities in clear parallel with similar action taken this year by their Russian counterparts, could have unforeseen consequences for all countries involved, namely a number of vacancies in the posts of local and regional crime chieftains with those keen on filling them ready to fight for it. If such a struggle for power within the higher echelons of organised crime in the former USSR is indeed imminent, Kazakhstan is unlikely to be spared. At stake here are not just millions, not even just billions but at least tens and possibly hundreds of billions expressed in US dollar or euro. The Brotherhood has its tentacles in illegal trade and distribution of firearms, explosives, chemicals, narcotics, stolen goods, extortion and racketeering- just name it. A gigantic realm, which is far from restricted to underground activity but hasseen its tentacles’ grip on regular economic activity strengthen enormously since well before the break-up of the Soviet Union.

In constrast to Soviet times, state authorities in various former Soviet republics are now more and more openly admitting the sheer size of this terrible reality. According to a study carried out in 2014 by experts from the universities of Karaganda and Pavlodar in the centre and northeast of Kazakhstan respectively, the situation in the country in regard to the threat to society represented by a new breed of “faceless mobsters” is more than acute. According to the report, at the time of writing “organised crime” controlled 35 per cent of the commercial banks, 40 per cent of “state-owned industry”, 35 per cent of “private companies” and 60 per cent of “businesses”. The last category had to pay 10 to 20 per cent of their revenue in the form of bribes or “protection money”. Moreover, organised crime controlled the entire markets for arms, drugs, counterfeit money, prostitution and other illegal merchandise. The number and size of legal-looking enterprises they created to launder their benefits was mushrooming.

Unscrupulous opportunism

According to the report, criminal gangs known as OPGs, the Russian acronym for Organised Criminal Groups, find their roots in the 1970s, as the spark of collective responsibility first lit by Lenin, suppressed under Stalin and once more flaring up under Nikita Khrushchev, was slowly dying out. A representative example of how criminal groups spurted up in Kazakhstan, simultaneously with a bit everywhere in the USSR is Muratkhan Shakerkhanovich Tokhmadiyev, born in 1966 in Semipalatinsk, in the northeast of Kazakhstan, once the location of the Union’s military atomic experiments and a very unhealthy place to spend one’s life up to this day. As “Murka” grew up, the social structure of the USSR was changing; ideals of the Revolution envisaging a better world for everyone were fading leaving place for little else but boredom and related unscrupulous opportunism. Murka soon found himself in the company of young people of his age, bearing names such as Batyrzhan Kabyshev, Yergali Zhakishchev, Adazh Batyrbekovich and Talgat Atabayev, all of whom started with hooliganism and petty crime but were poised to form the core of the ring of rogues and racketeers due to terrorise Almaty’s fledgling private entrepreneurship including clubs, shopping centres, wholesale companies and – of course – banks, once the Soviet system disappeared with the Union.

Into the new millennium, “Nurka” Tokhmadiyev together with a comrade-in-crime by the name of Marat Bolatovich Turlykhanov found himself at the helm of a gang known as Deputatskiy Korpus. Important rings (organisatskiye pristuplenyie gruppiy or OPG in Russian) included a gang named Red Diamond, which featured a female mobster named Aygul Saulebayeva known under the nicknames Hippopotamus and Ike. Closely linked to Deputatskiy Korpus were (and as assumed still are) Atabayev’s organisation Ataba, which specialises in arms trade and Aday Charbayev’s group, known as Aday, which apart from coal and fuel smuggling routes controlled transport and trade lines between Almaty and Moscow. Finally, there was, and still is, a powerful network known as the Four Brothers, at the time controlled by a certain Serik Zhantegulovich Matyshev with strong links to other criminal organisations operating in the south of Kyrgyzstan.

Of late, news media in Kazakhstan have suggested that the influence of the “older generation” of crime groups and their kingpins in the country seems to be waning, to make place for a younger generation which is less hierarchic in structure but all the more ruthless in its methods where it comes to binding legitimate business circles to them and settling accounts. Whether legitimate state authorities find an effective response to the threat remains to be seen – but that they are rather late with it looks clear already. Both in Russia and in other former USSR member states including Kazakhstan, it can hardly be seen as a overstatement to say that the state itself is in danger. (to be continued)

by Charles van der Leeuw, writer, news analyst