The View East

Central and Eastern Europe, Past and Present.

Mafia International? Organised Crime in Central and Eastern Europe

The collapse of communism led to increased levels of organised crime across Central and Eastern Europe, as the early post-Cold War period was characterised by the growth of a substantial indigenous underworld combined with an influx of criminal gangs from outside the region. The evolution of the East European underworld has thus been shaped by a mixture of cooperation and conflict between various criminal organisations. In this article, guest author Thomas Garrett asseses the state of East European organised crime, analysing the development of relations between some of the region’s key players.


Mafia International? Organised Crime in Central and Eastern Europe.

By Thomas Garrett.


In the decades since the collapse of communism, Central and Eastern Europe has been popularly portrayed as a cross roads for international organised crime: a meeting point for mafias from east and west and a hotbed of criminal cooperation, fuelled by the forging of international crime links between domestic criminal gangs and various external mafias who have infiltrated the region. In the early 1990s, crime groups from the former Soviet Union quickly moved in to develop a formidable presence in central and Eastern Europe, and as early as 1993, Irving Soloway, a spokesman for the US State Department claimed that American and Sicilian mafias were also ‘working with their counterparts in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union… to apply strategic planning and market development policies for the new emerging free markets [of Eastern Europe]… and to develop and expand extremely illegal activities’. Soloway even claimed that three post-communist ‘crime summits’ had taken place in central and eastern Europe soon after the collapse  –  in Warsaw (1991), Prague (1992), and Berlin (1993) – where he alleged that the leaders of various organised crime groups met to approve alliances, divide territories of interest, and organise ways to work together (Irving Soloway quoted in Washington Times, 1993). Soloway’s scenario smacks of the kind of ‘Pax Mafiosa’ outlined by Claire Sterling in her book Crime Without Frontiers (Little, Brown & Company, 1994) – the formation of a transnational alliance allowing criminals to work together peacefully in the post-Cold War world, an arrangement regulated by business-like meetings to coordinate mutually profitable ventures. This is an idea that remains popularly accepted today: organised crime expert Mark Galeotti recently described how ‘I’ve come across… prosecutors who believe that somewhere – like a scene out of some Bond movie – there is a ruling council running all post-Soviet organised crime’. Galeotti disagrees with the idea that any kind of ‘Pax Mafiosa’ exists in central and Eastern Europe however, arguing that this idea is a ‘myth’ and argues that instead, crime in the post-Soviet states is characterised by a diverse mix of ‘loose but entrepreneurial’ organisations and smaller networks centred around important underworld figures (Mark Galeotti, Mythologising the Mafia, The Moscow News, August 2011).


Mafia International?


Whether they are united or not, the organised criminals of Central and Eastern Europe certainly represent a powerful force. A thriving domestic underworld has developed in countries across the region in the decades since the collapse of communism. The World Security Network Foundation currently estimates that as much as 20% of Hungary’s GDP is under the control of organised criminals, with Hungarian police citing a significant increase in illegal economic activity since Hungary joined the EU in 2004. Czech police now believe that they face about 100 different organised crime groups, comprised of around 3000 members, and 5000 further ‘auxiliary supporters’, with recently published survey data suggesting that Czechs believe organised crime to be one of the most serious problems facing their country today. While the Slovakian underworld appears to be rather less developed, with police estimating that only about 700 organised criminals are active in the country, that hasn’t stopped Bratislava from becoming a European centre for prostitution, an industry believed to generate over 50 million Euros in profit a year (Michaletos and Hanakova, Organised Crime in Central Europe). Poland has become a leading European centre for amphetamine production, while Albania remains a key European route for heroin smuggling. Organised crime has successfully penetrated economic and political spheres across the regions, with a number of ‘scandals’ connecting high profile politicians to organised crime. Reports compiled by both the Council of Europe and the German military have claimed that Hashim Thaci, Prime Minister of Kosovo, ran a powerful Albanian Mafia group controlling racketeering and heroin trade in the Balkans, and has alleged they even murdered Serbian captives to sell their organs on the black market (These allegations have always been denied by the KLA – the original version of the report is available here).


Hashim Thaci (Left) - the Kosovan Prime Minister is alleged to have close links with the mafia.


The geopolitical position of many central and east European states, lying between the poor, crime-ridden states of the former Soviet Union and the richer consumer countries to the west made the region a naturally lucrative smuggling route once the ‘Iron Curtain’ was opened, thus also attracting the attention of organised crime groups based outside of the region. Today, heroin from Afghanistan and Pakistan destined for sale in western Europe and north America travel through central Asia across Russia and into eastern Europe, or through Iran, Turkey and the Balkans. While a lot of marijuana is produced in north Africa and transported directly to western Europe, marijuana grown in fields across central Asian states such as Kazakhstan (also a leading producer of marijuana for west European markets), has to be smuggled through Russia or Turkey before entering the EU.


Macedonian police seize packages of heroin, en-route for sale in Vienna and Frankfurt


Human smuggling routes follow a similar pattern across the region  Prostitution is a particularly lucrative crime, with women commonly brought from the poorer states of south east Europe and the former Soviet Union, and smuggled into states including the Czech Republic, Germany and the Netherlands. There they will be forced to work in brothels to earn money for the gangs who now ‘own’ them. Middle Eastern countries (particularly Israel), are also common destinations for prostitutes originating from the former USSR, who are often illegally transported through the Balkans. Aside from prostitution, victims of trafficking are sometimes forced to work for criminal gangs in various other illegal capacities to make them money, such as fraud.


Prague has become a European centre for prostitution


Today, despite heightened security measures, EU borders remain far from impermeable. In EU member states such as Bulgaria where corruption is rife, it remains relatively easy for criminal gangs to arrange for fake documentation such as passports and visas, which allow both material and human cargo to illegally travel on to popular European destinations such as Germany, France and Britain after they arrive in Bulgaria. And while trafficking drugs and people remain two of the most serious smuggling crimes, they are by no means the only illegal cargo to pass through central and Eastern Europe. Speedboats cross the Adriatic sea every night, laden with cigarettes and alcohol, to dodge tax regulations. Cars stolen in the West can be smuggled to Eastern Europe, but much more commonly today, cars stolen in Eastern Europe are smuggled to Russia, the Middle East and central Asia. Counterfeit designer fashion and bootleg DVDs and computer software, produced domestically and imported from Asia are also transported for sale inside the European Union.


Cooperation … and Conflict.


Given the broad scope of these smuggling operations, the post-communist decades have clearly witnessed a significant level of criminal cooperation, both between the various domestic mafias of central and Eastern Europe, and between domestic criminals and gangs based outside of the region. But does this equate to the formation of a ‘Pax Mafiosa’ –  a coordinated criminal network spanning the central and east European region? Or are we witnessing a series of more transient, short-term mutually profitable individual agreements between gangs who retain the power to fight over territory and markets when their interests and loyalties shift?


Since the beginning of the 1990s, Italy has been clamping down hard on the Sicilian Mafia. According to the deputy director of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, at the end of the 1990s the Mafia sought to survive this crackdown by forming a “symbiotic” relationship with the Albanian crime families known as fares, who provided the struggling Sicilians a number of services (mostly providing ‘muscle’), in their operations across Italy. Today, both Sicilian Mafia groups and the ‘Ndrangheta are believed to have franchised out prostitution, gambling and drug dealing in territories along the Adriatic coast to the Albanians. One CSIS report even claimed that this partnership had proved so successful that the Sicilian mafia established a ‘headquarters’ in Vlorë, a coastal town in southern Albania at the close of the 1990s (And the Winner is … the Albanian Mafia, Washington Quarterly, 1999).


Vlorë, Albania, suspected to be the external headquarters of the Sicilian Mafia


While the Sicilian Mafia initially seems to have benefitted from cooperative relations with Albanian groups, using them to make up for the loss of manpower suffered during the Italian government’s clampdown, other Italian groups appear to have had less success. This has been particulalry apparent since the Albanian gangs have sought to expand their own influence in the last decade. According to one British anti-organised crime agency, native criminal groups based in Milan struggled violently with Albanian gangs who were attempting to muscle in on their lucrative drug market at the close of the 1990s, eventually losing out to their new competitors (Albanian Mafia targets Britain, The Guardian, 1999). Other criminal groups are also wary of working with their Albanian rivals. A US Newspaper reporter investigating Polish organised crime was told by an underworld source that ‘the Poles will work with just about anybody… blacks, Italians, Russians, Asians. But they won’t go near the Albanian mob. The Albanians are too violent and too unpredictable’. (Philadelphia, December 2002).


A similar scenario unfolded with the powerful Russian gangs. After the fall of the USSR, Russian crime groups quickly moved to establish a ‘presence’ in Eastern Europe, forging mutually profitable alliances through cooperation with many native criminal groups. According to the Conflict Studies Research Centre, many Russian gangs used connections formerly established during the Soviet era to forge links with the emergent East European underworld in the 1990s. Russian criminals liaised with Czech gangs to smuggle arms and drugs through Prague and into Germany (Dallow, Russian Organised Crime, 1998). Prague also quickly became a centre for prostitution, with Russian gangs smuggling girls in from the former Soviet Union, where they were sold or loaned to the ‘local’ Czech gangs who operated the brothels. In exchange, Czech gangs used their influence with local law enforcement to benefit their Russian counterparts, for example, faking court orders to free a particularly infamous Russian gangster from gaol. During the Cold War era, many Red Army recruits were stationed in East Germany, meeting German criminals who they were later able to form ‘business’ links with. In addition to the familiar alliances relating to prostitution and drug smuggling, a thriving market in stolen cars also developed through Germany in the aftermath of the collapse of the Berlin Wall. High-value cars stolen by German car thieves (sometimes to order) would be passed on to Russian gangs, who arranged for their illegal transportation through Poland and into the former Soviet Union In a matter of days, if not hours, a car stolen in Warsaw could end up anywhere from Kiev to Vladivostok. In Hungary, it was estimated that during the last week before the Soviet Union’s collapse, 1000 Red Army soldiers stationed in Hungary deserted rather than return home. Many of these later became involved in criminal enterprises based in Hungary but having connections in the former USSR. Dirty Russian money has been laundered through numerous financial institutions in central and eastern Europe.


But again, the post-communist Russian influx led to conflict as well as cooperation. While the early 1990s provided a windown of opportunity for Russian criminals to move in to Eastern Europe this influx often resulted in violence. In the mid-1990s one infamous case in Frankfurt involved the slaughter of a Russian pimp, his wife and four prostitutes due to a feud with other criminals, while a series of bombs set off in the Cypriot town of Limassol were believed to be caused by gangs fighting over extortion rackets on Russian businessmen. All across eastern Europe there were similar conflicts and ‘turf wars’ as gangs battled over the control of illegal markets, with car bombs, shoot outs, assassinations and even stereotypical gangland instances where gang members have been killed, hidden in the boots of cars and then buried. Levels of overt violence peaked at the close of the 1990s, partly as the underworld stabilised and partly because the state fightback launched by many central European governments led to a number of Russian criminals being ‘forced out’. However, there has been some resurgence in violence during the second post-communist decade and occasional ‘flare ups’ still occur today, for example in Italy, where Russian gangsters have recently sought to establish operations in the north (especially Milan), a strategy which has has brought them into conflict with both indigenous Italian gangs and with the resurgent Albanian fares.         


It would seem wrong then, to claim that there is some kind of East European ‘Pax Mafiosa’, as the relationships between the various criminal gangs operating across central and eastern Europe are often fractious and violent. It would also be wrong to characterise them as bitter rivals however, continually warring over territory and always seeking to monopolise their own particular markets. In today’s globalised economy, cooperation is increasingly a prerequisite for successful criminal organisations. Today, the East European underworld is characterised by loose alliances between groups, who cooperate to carry out more sophisticated and profitable crimes when it suits them, but also retain the capacity for fractious infighting and disunity. There is certainly no supreme Mafia council coordinating crimes across Eastern Europe, but in the twenty years since the collapse of communism, many criminals have learned how to work together to fully exploit the lucrative advantages that carving out a presence in the heart of Europe can provide.


About the Author:

Thomas Garrett is completing his MA in History at Swansea University. He is currently working on his dissertation, entitled ‘The Internationalisation of the Russian Mafia’ which analyses the global spread of Russian organised crime from the 1980s to the present day.


For more information see:

RW Dallow, Conflict Studies Research Centre, Russian Organised Crime (Surrey: Camberley, 1998)

Ian Davies, Chrissie Hurst, Bernado Mariani; Saferworld, Organised crime, corruption and illicit arms smuggling in an enlarged EU: Challenges and Perspectives (December 2001)

Kelly Hignett, ‘The Changing Face of Organised Crime in Post-Communist Central and Eastern Europe’ Debatte, vol 18, no 1 (April 2010)

Ioannis Michaletos and Marketa Hanakova; World Security Network Foundation, Organised Crime in Central Europe (2010)

October 7, 2011 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , ,


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