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 | , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Croatian EU Membership Under Threat?

It appears as though issues related to two of my current areas of study, organised crime and disputed borders, may conspire to scupper or at least postpone Croatia’s chances of joining the EU.

Croatia applied for EU membership in 2003, was granted official candidate country status in mid-2004 and entered official entry negotiations with the EU from October 2005. Croatia had been making good progress and was hoping to complete pre-accession negotiations by the end of this year, clearing the way for full membership by 2011. While the most recent European Commission progress report on Croatian accession (published in November 2008) remained generally positive about levels of progress, it did raise serious concerns about continued high levels of corruption and organised crime, strongly stating that ‘more needed to be done’ in this area to meet EU requirements before the country could be considered for full membership.

I explored these developments in a short article (‘Croatia Tackles Crime to Calm EU Jitters’) published by Jane’s Intelligence Digest in December 2008. In brief, the 1990s were a boom time for organised crime in Croatia because post-socialist economic privatisation, opportunities for profiteering and sanctions busting during the Balkan wars and the endemic corruption under Franjo Tudjman’s regime encouraged the establishment of close links between political elites, law enforcement, big business and organised crime. As a result organised crime has often been at best tolerated and at worst promoted by those in positions of power. Croatian intelligence reports highlight the activites of organised smuggling chains dealing in narcotics, arms, cigarettes and human traffic, with high levels of money laundering and counterfeiting linked to organised criminal activities. Working relations have been established between Croatian criminals and their counterparts elsewhere, particularly throughout the Balkan Region and Former Soviet Union, Turkey and Italy. A range of gangland slayings towards the close of 2008 (including the contract killing of lawyers daughter Ivana Hodak on 6th October and the murder of contraversial media magnate Ivo Pukanic in a car bombing on 23rd October, both linked to organised crime) led to demands for concrete action to fight organised crime from both the Croatian public and EU monitors. After a series of public protests against gangland violence and condemnations of the killings by the EC and OSCE (Hans Svoboda, Croatian monitor within the European Parliament declared that ‘either the government must impose some stability and order or Croatia will not be able to join the EU any time soon’), Prime Minister Ivo Sanader ‘declared war’ on organised crime,acting quickly to push a package of anti-mafia laws through parliament and establishing a new police unit, the National Office for Suppressing Corruption and Organised Crime. Dubbed ‘The Croatian FBI’ by the press, a well-publicised anti-organised crime crackdown was launched and dozens of arrests were made before the close of 2008.

While the Croatian government wait for the 2009 EC progress reports to find out whether their recent efforts have been sufficient to convince the EU they are taking a serious enough approach to resolving their crime problem, another issue has raised its ugly head, threatening to derail accession negoiations, this time concerning a disputed borderline along the Croatian-Slovenian coast.

The Bay of Piran is only twenty square kilometres (eight square miles) in area, but provides a treasured outlet to the Adriatic sea for Slovenia, whose total coastline is only 46 km (29 miles) long. Croatia, whose coastline stretches for 1,700 km (1056 miles) argues that a dividing borderline should be drawn down the middle of the bay, but Slovenia fear this would deny their ships access to the sea. This isn’t a new dispute, indeed it dates back 18 years to the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991. However the issue has recently been given new impetus as Slovenia (currently the only former Yugoslav state to have joined the EU) are now threatening to veto Croatia’s EU application unless the issue is resolved. While Slovenia are requesting EU mediation to resolve the dispute, Croatia argue that this is a legal, rather than a political issue, so should be resolved by the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

On February 20, European Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn encouraged the two countries to ‘work on finding a solution to their border dispute if Zagreb’s EU membership negotiations are to stand a chance of making progress’. Slovenian and Croatian prime ministers Borut Pahor and Ivo Sanader are to due to meet tomorrow (24th February) in an attempt to resolve the matter. If they are unable to reach a satisfactory resolution Croatia may be unable to complete membership negotiations by the end of this year, which will almost certainly delay their entry into the EU.

February 23, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 1 Comment

International Organised Crime in the Czech Republic.

A short article I wrote at the close of 2008 about organised crime in the Czech Republic has just been published in Jane’s Intelligence Digest (‘Foreign crime infiltrates Czech Republic’, 06/02/2009

While I obviously can’t reproduce the full article here, I will provide a quick general overview of this topic, highlighting  some of the key points:

  • Concerns were raised about continued high-levels of non-indigenous organised crime in the Czech Republic last year. A report published by UOOZ (the Czech unit for combating organised crime) in July 2008 claimed that organised crime was dominated by groups originating from the former Soviet Union, Italy, the Balkans and a range of Asian and Middle Eastern networks, who were engaged in a variety of  criminal activities on an incresingly large scale. The 2008 annual report by BIS (the Czech civillian counter intelligence unit) also expressed concern about foreign crime groups infiltrating both legal and illegal spheres of the Czech economy and establishing ties with lawyers, financiers, members of the state administration, police and the judiciary.
  • Concern over penetration by foreign criminal groups is not a recent development however. The earliest post-communist Czech intelligence and law enforcement reports, written in the early 1990s, strongly stressed the presence of high levels of non-indigenous organised crime within the country. In 1992 a report compiled by the Czech Ministry of Interior claimed that less than 20% of organised crime was committed by domestic criminals, and by the mid-1990s law enforcement reports estimated that around 50% of criminal organisations active in Czech Republic originated from elsewhere, with another 25% comprised of a mixture of foreign and domestic criminals.
  • Similar claims presenting organised crime primarily as a ‘foreign import’ are found in all of the East European countries in the early post-communist period. To a certain extent the level of influence of non-indigenous organised crime was exaggerated to downplay the development of domestic organised crime. However, the Czech Republic is an attractive prospect for many criminal gangs from outside its borders. It’s  geographical location is perfect for incorporation into European smuggling routes, initially bordering EU countries and (from May 2004) becoming a full EU member themselves, while the post-communist economic boom of the late 1990s created favourable conditions for investment and money laundering.
  • Criminal groups from the former Soviet Union quickly moved in to establish a strong presence in the Czech Republic in the 1990s, with groups linked to the Moscow-based Solntsevo organisation, St-Petersburg based Tambovskaya group and several organisations from Ukraine, Chechnya, Dagestan and Armenia known to be active on Czech territory. Russian-speaking crime groups have invested heavily in businesses and real estate in areas including Prague, Brno and Karlovy Vary.  Recent reports suggest that criminal groups from the former Soviet Union retain a position of dominance amongst non-indigenous gangs operating in the Czech Republic today, followed by groups from the Balkans and Italy.
  • The strong international influence on organised crime means that criminal networks in the Czech Republic today engage in a variety of activities on a transnational scale, including illegal immigration, people trafficking, arms trading and commodity smuggling activities. The country remains a favoured route for drug smuggling, particularly heroin from Asia and increasingly, cocaine from North Africa. Despite some growth in the domestic drug market in recent years, Interpol still estimate that around 70% of drugs smuggled into the Czech Republic are destined for further transport and sale in other EU countries. Many gangs have also moved into drug production, with a number of professionally equipped amphetamine manufacturing laboratories uncovered in recent years.
  • While the continued presence of foreign criminals is clear, the Czech underworld is not entirely dominated by outsiders. A number of ‘home-grown’ criminal gangs have faced trial in recent years, most famously the Berdych gang trial, which led to 19 gang members (all of whom were Czechs, including three former UOOZ members) being sentenced on a range of criminal charges in January 2006. Recent evidence indicates that domestic criminal groups are now taking greater responsibility for organising and conducting operations on Czech territory, while analysts admit that increased international collaboration means it is becoming more difficult to classify groups as ‘Czech’ or ‘foreign’.

February 20, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment