Organized Crime Moscow Protests Spark Crackdown on Markets

Following the alleged murder of a young Russian by a foreigner, angry protesters rioted at a nearby wholesale market known to employ immigrants. Now authorities have cracked down on the market, believed to be controlled by criminal gangs.



When the TV cameras arrive at the huge Pokrovskaya fruit and vegetable market in Moscow, those who are really in control of the market send their saleswomen out to talk to the reporters, while they watch from a distance in their dark SUVs.

The women talk about tomatoes from southern Russia and grapes from Moldova. Moscow authorities have kept the market closed for the past few days, and plans are to keep it closed much longer.

Larissa, a farmer's wife from Astrakhan, wanted to sell her harvest in Moscow. "I've got 13 tons of red bell peppers in the truck, and they've been rotting there since Sunday," she said.

That's when an angry crowd of residents from the nearby West Biryulyovo district and aggressive neo-Nazis from other areas stormed the market. The trigger was the death of a young man named Yegor Sherbakov, who was knifed in the immediate vicinity of the market.

Witnesses described the alleged perpetrator as a "non-Russian." An Azerbaijani man has been arrested for the crime, and Russian officials say he confessed to killing the man in self-defense.

But to many it seemed obvious that the murderer would be connected to the wholesale market. Gangs originating in Central Asia and the Caucasus have controlled the fruit and vegetable trade in Moscow for the past two decades and Pokrovksaya is the largest of the Russian capital's wholesale markets. The complex extends over 35 hectares (86 acres) and has over 1,600 spaces for trucks to park. Some 40 to 50 percent of all Moscow vegetable deliveries pass through Pokrovskaya, with annual sales of $9 billion (€6.6 billion).

Risky and Lucrative

It's a lucrative business. Moscow fruit and vegetable prices are on average significantly higher than those in Germany. One reason for the higher prices might be the cuts demanded by criminal intermediaries. Merchants are obligated to pay the mafia 100,000 rubles ($3130) per ton they process. But the risks are as high as the profits. Since 2007 approximately 20 murders have been considered linked to the struggle for control of Pokrovskaya.

In a bid to control public anger following the riots, hundreds of police were dispatched to raid the market, backed up by armored vehicles. About 1,200 migrant workers were temporarily detained and when they were searched investigators found some knives and pellet guns. Public health authorities initially closed the market for a "cleaning day," which was later extended to five days. On Wednesday, that was extended to 90 days.

This enrages Larissa, who is waiting at the market gates to sell her vegetables. "We condemn the murder like everyone else," she says, "but why should we suffer for a deed that has nothing to do with the market?"

Initial investigation results seem to support that theory. Russian television broadcast images of Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev viewing the suspects. The man arrested for the crime is a native of Azerbaijan who had worked as a taxi driver. Kolokoltsev says his arrest proves that "the police are capable of meeting the tasks expected of them by the people."

Unclear Ownership

It will be far harder for Russian authorities to reorganize Moscow's wholesale markets than it was to arrest a suspect in the killing, but that reorganization is something which has long been demanded by wide portions of the public.

The ownership of such markets is often unclear: Officially Pokrovskaya belongs to two businessmen from Dagestan, Aliaskhab Gajiev and Igor Isayev. Recent reports that the two are brothers, despite different last names, led to considerable surprise in Moscow. The Russian edition of "Forbes" reports that Isayev had changed his last name because it was featured in police databases. Neither has commented publicly since the riots.

Magomed Tolboyev, a former test pilot for the Soviet "Buran" space shuttle project, a recipient of the country's highest honor and the "honorary president" of the market, came forward as a spokesperson for the market. Tolboyev is a proven networker: during the last presidential election he acted as one of Vladimir Putin's 500 official representatives.

But while Tolboyev represents the Pokrovskaya market to the outside world, the true beneficiaries of the business are likely to be "thieves-in-law," as mafia bosses are known in Russia. Last year authorities apprehended a gang that had kidnapped market traders for ransom. Incidents like these have led the Moscow press to brand the market a "black hole."

A Bloody Struggle for Control

Criminal gangs have been engaged in a bloody struggle for control of the Pokrovskaya market for years. In 2007, Raguf Rustamov, who controlled Pokrovskaya at the time, was hit by eight bullets in a Moscow café and survived before escaping to Baku, where he was eventually murdered.

Pokrovskaya's current bosses also have their opponents. In 2011 Ilgar Jabrailov, an associate of the influential Moscow mob boss Aslan Usoyan, tried to gain control of the market. However, Jabrailov failed and was killed in an attack by hitmen in April 2012, as was Usoyan, known as "Uncle Hassan," who was shot by a sniper in central Moscow in early 2013.

For years Moscow authorities seemed unconcerned by what was happening at the Pokrovskaya market. Local residents wrote complaints to no avail, and their complaints were put off with references to the wholesale market as a "strategically important part of the food distribution chain."

That all changed last Sunday. Since then Moscow bureaucrats have tried to outdo each other in discovering infringements of the law at the market. The Investigative Committee has unearthed "serious violations of immigration and labor law," while public health authorities uncovered workers who were handling food without the necessary health permits.

In addition to the temporary closure of the market being extended, it has also been suggested that the market move outside the city limits.

A man in sunglasses standing next to an SUV outside the market introduces himself as Nadir. Asked what would happen if Pokrovskaya fails to reopen, he says: "That would mean war."

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