Georgia’s mafia: the politics of survival

A prominent feature of Georgian life both before and after the Soviet period has been the influence of a powerful criminal network, the “thieves-in-law”. Its rise and endurance is closely linked to the changing character of the Georgian state, says Gavin Slade.
Gavin Slade
20 August 2010

An interesting and somewhat neglected aspect of the study of post-Soviet Georgia is the particular character of the influential criminal network known in the Georgian language as kanonieri qurdebi (“thieves-in-law”). How can the endurance of this phenomenon be understood, and what does it reveal about the nature of Georgian politics and society in the two decades of the independent “second republic”?

A possible answer to these questions is suggested by an influential article published in the late-Soviet, pre-perestroika era of the early 1980s (see G Mars & Y Altman, “The Cultural Bases of the Georgian Second Economy” [Soviet Studies, 35/4, 1983]). There, the authors argued that the burgeoning second economy of Soviet Georgia was the result of a “fundamental cultural distinction” - born of Georgian cultural values such as competition (particularly in consumer habits), risk-taking, honour, and nepotism.

A decade later, amid the chaos and near-collapse of the early years of Georgia’s independent state, the distinct group called “thieves-in-law” emerged as key players in the country’s economy and power-structures. Could there also be a cultural basis for this prevalent Georgian phenomenon?

The origins of kanonieri qurdebi can be traced to the prison-camp system - the “gulag archipelago” - across the Soviet Union, where prison fraternities arose for mutual protection which operated according to their own codes of honour. The implosion of the Soviet system after the years of glasnost and perestroika under Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s enabled Georgia (along with the other constituent republics of the USSR) to regain its independence, a process however that quickly turned bloody as civil war and failed armed attempts to hold onto the territories of South Ossetia (1991-92) and Abkhazia (1992-93) engulfed the country. In this messy context, where Georgia barely had a functioning economy, a new generation of “thieves-in-law” rose to prominence. By 2003, Georgia’s president - the former Soviet foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze - admitted: “thieves-in-law have eaten the country”.

The popular revolt of November 2003 known as the “rose revolution” ousted Shevardnadze and brought to power a young successor, Mikheil Saakashvili. His government launched an extensive anti-mafia campaign whose measures included the confiscation of property; new criminal legislation; and reform of prisons, police, and civic education. In December 2005, it was made a criminal offence to belong to the qurduli samkaro (“thieves’ world”); the very notion of “thief-in-law” now marked a boundary of criminality.

A simple question

In March 2007, after a wave of arrests, Mikheil Saakashvili declared to parliament in Tbilisi that “the backbone of the system of crime bosses has been broken….some of the people who sat in this room said that the parliament of a little independent Georgia would hardly be able to do something that Stalin himself was unable to do.”

The president’s claim did not give the full story, for the qurduli samkaro is far from dead. Georgia’s thieves-in-law had responded to the government crackdown by following a useful survival-strategy for mafias in trouble: transplantation. Many moved to Russia, where the press highlighted the fact that 33% of all thieves-in-law from post-Soviet countries were Georgian (the highest ethnicity ahead of the Russians). But others moved across Europe, as reflected in three recent developments:

* the arrest of sixty-nine people in connection with the “Georgian mafia” in Europe in March 2010

* a conflict between two large Georgian criminal groups headed by thieves-in-law, involving street-killings in Athens, Marseilles, and Moscow

* the opening of an Austrian police investigation in July 2010, into a Georgian criminal ring in western Europe which allegedly funded opposition protests in Tbilisi in spring 2009. (These protests themselves borrowed some of the symbolism and rhetoric of the penal subculture, when demonstrators “occupied” dozens of makeshift prison-cells throughout Tbilisi).

A simple question arises: why should Georgia have produced so many thieves-in-law? A superficial explanation, commonplace in Russia and in Georgia itself, is that there is something congruent between Georgian values, culture, and mentality and those of the thieves’ world. Two scholars put the case: “As Georgians…automatically resist law in any and all forms…It could also be said that the society of Thieves has given the country of Georgia the only uncorrupted and enforceable judicial system Georgia has ever known” (see VD Nordin & G Glonti, “Thieves of the Law and the Rule of Law in Georgia” [Caucasian Review of International Affairs, 1/1, 2006]). On this view, Georgia’s relationship with thieves-in-law is an irreversible destiny emerging out of ingrained historical traits and cultural dispositions.

The problem with this culturalist explanation is that such catch-all terms such as “Georgian culture” or the “Georgian mentality” doesn’t explain why Georgia incubated the thieves’ world so much better than elsewhere in the Soviet and post-Soviet world. Perhaps then it is more fruitful to think of the thieves-in-law more in terms of its actual social and economic practices: as a mafia which operates in the market for protection, regulates disputes, extracts taxes and claims authority over both areas of business and territory. On this view, the thieves-in-law - regardless of cultural tendencies or practices - compete with other protection-producers and will be strong according to the demand for their services.

A competitive edge

The argument follows that, where Georgia is concerned, the influence of the thieves-in-law arose out of two specific socio-economic conditions in that republic. The first is that Georgia already had proportionally one of the largest “second-economy” sectors in the Soviet Union, according to the best available estimates of the time. The nature of the political system meant that by definition the state could not protect or regulate the huge amount of illegal capitalist transactions that then took place. In consequence, there was both need and opportunity for alternative dispute-resolution mechanisms. Indeed, archival documents from Georgia show that the thieves-in-law were indeed working in this capacity with black-marketeers even in the 1980s.

But the Soviet second economy was also very large in republics such as Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, so although this may be a partial explanation for the prevalence of the thieves-in-law in Georgia it cannot be a complete one. The second aspect, then, is the degree of state collapse experienced by Georgia in the 1990s - possibly the most extreme of any Soviet republic. In this decade, the legalisation of capitalist transactions meant that the demand for protection-provision multiplied, but many transactions remained unprotected  - this time because of the state’s weakness rather than (as in the Soviet era) its ideological rigidity. Thus, Georgia’s state collapse allowed other actors to appropriate governance functions to a degree not seen in most other post-Soviet republics.

The Georgian thieves-in-law were one such group in a good position to do just this. They already formed a criminal status-group with many assets: a brand name, a code of honour, and rituals transferred from the gulag subculture outside the prison walls. A strong reputation of this kind gives a competitive edge to any mafia, as status and reputation directly substitute for the often risky and expensive production of violence. The bloody nature of the Georgian transition meant that competition in the latter field was fierce; it came in the form of irregular paramilitaries such as the Mkhedrioni (a group itself created by a thief-in-law but which showed no respect for the thieves’ authority), and the corrupt police apparatus.

The experience of other mafias, such as Sicily’s Cosa Nostra in the 1970s, indicates that they respond to violent competition by lowering their barriers to entry. Georgian police-data confirm that Georgia’s thieves-in-law were no different. In the Soviet period, it was unheard of to recruit individuals with no prison experience or sell the title of “thief-in-law” for private gain; now, however, such new practices vastly swelled the numbers of Georgians with the title. The self-enriching instincts of the title-sellers, and the unruly behaviour of the new recruits, together bust the myth of the thieves as ascetic men-of-honour. As in any business, cashing in on the market value of a brand name without fully reinvesting in it is a very short-term strategy. 

Reform and reversal

These considerations begin to explain in more specific ways why there are still so many Georgian thieves-in-law. The idea of “fundamental cultural distinctions” can be put aside; rather, the key process is the way that the demand for dispute-resolution in the Soviet-Georgian second economy combined with extreme state collapse after 1991, creating in turn a violent competition for the spoils with unintended consequences.

The process of state-building since 2004, including a successful police reform, has had - according to recent surveys - the result of making Georgians feel more hostile towards the kanonieri qurdebi. However, the same surveys suggest that the courts, left largely unreformed after the rose revolution, have become more detested and distrusted.

The Mikheil Saakashvili administration, among its many tasks, needs to fulfil its promise of creating an independent judiciary and further encourage civil-society bodies in order to show that the state can provide and protect the institutions of fair and transparent dispute-resolution. The thieves-in-law may be exiled or in jail, but they still exist. And it is clear that if Georgia’s destiny can be reversed once, it can be so again.

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