by Roman Kupchinsky
The jewel in the crown of the Russian Far East is Vladivostok, a hilly maritime city often compared to San Francisco. And while San Francisco prides itself on having a thriving Chinatown, Vladivostok is home to a thriving Chinese criminal community.
The damage these criminal gangs do to the region’s economy is enormous, yet, according to a 2007 study conducted by the Vladivostok Center on Organized Crime: “Political and academic circles in Moscow believe that the “problem” is exaggerated and warn those who write about the Chinese Mafia in Russia that this topic might harm relations with China.”
In March 2007, the mayor of Vladivostok, Vladimir Nikolayev, a supporter of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, was removed from office after the city’s Leninsky District court approved a motion from the prosecutor’s office to strip him of his post. Nikolayev, also known by his criminal underground name of “Winnie the Pooh,” was charged with illegal land deals and embezzlement.
Five other criminal investigations of high level municipal officials, including the deputy mayor, were opened at this time but apparently were dropped. The funds allegedly embezzled by Nikolayev and his accomplices topped $3 million. Prosecutors have linked Nikolayev to Chinese organized crime gangs operating in the city which are suspected of bribing the former mayor. (International Herald Tribune, 1 March 2007)
Such Chinese crime groups as The Wolves, The Snakes and The Mad Dog have made heavy investments not only in the above listed activities, but also in local tourism and fishing as well as extorting protection money from both Chinese and Russian businesses in the city.
In 2006 a number of highly placed customs officials, Federal Security Service (FSB) and Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) officers, along with local prosecutors were fired during a crackdown on illegal food smuggling from China. One such smuggling operation involved a shipment of food products filling 150 railway carriages. The leaders of the gang were Chinese triad members and Russian businessmen according to Vladimir Ovchinsky, a retired MVD Major General and former head of the Russian Interpol office.
A great deal of Chinese organized crime activities involves natural resources. According to the Far Eastern Economic Review of May, 30, 2002, “Chinese and Russian groups illegally fell 1.5 million cubic meters of timber a year worth some $300 million, the WWF says. Much of it ends up in China and South Korea.”