Experts are not hopeful that a new law can root out Georgia’s pervasive organised criminals.
The Georgian government has passed a new law to tackle organised crime, revealing the extent to which it permeates the whole of society. The bill “on organised crime and racketeering” was adopted on Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili’s personal initiative. He then signed the law on December 29 in a ceremony broadcast live on television.
“The previous authorities were linked to ‘thieves in law’ [a Soviet-era term for an organised crime boss], but we will put an end to these flourishing thieves,” said Saakashvili. The president said that the new law will ensure criminal kingpins are rooted out and their property confiscated by the state. The president also announced plans to build a new prison in the capital Tbilisi to hold 3,000 inmates.
The new authorities that came to power in Georgia following the November 2003 “Rose Revolution” declared that tackling organised crime was one of their top priorities. The interior ministry was overhauled and in 2005, it was merged with the security ministry, resulting in many staff being dismissed.
Police operations to arrest suspected criminals are regularly shown on television. According to official figures, more than 160 people accused of abduction, hostage-taking, smuggling, extortion and using or selling drugs were arrested in 2004 and the first nine months of 2005. However, some experts say that the official statistics disguise the continuing gravity of the crime situation.
Irakli Artilakva of the Young Lawyers Association of Georgia said, “Basically the situation has not changed. Crimes are still being committed as before. But so as to improve the statistics and show everyone that they are active in fighting organised crime, the authorities are imprisoning people who might have been eligible for a different kind of sentence.
“The prisons are full. There are 78 inmates in a cell meant for 15 people, so they take it in turns to sleep. We did not have that situation even in Communist times. Very often people are imprisoned for fear that they might abscond.” In light of this overcrowding, Artiklava argue that the new law is not well thought out, and was adopted too hastily. “The crimes for which so-called ‘thieves in law’ can be convicted were punishable previously as well,” he said. “The inclusion of such criminal concepts in the law is not justifiable at all.”
Levan Bezhashvili, one of the authors of the new bill and chairman of the Georgian parliament’s legal issues Committee, told IWPR that the law drew on the experience of the United States, Poland, and, in particular, Italy. As in Italy, the major innovation is that the heads of organised crime groups can be given long jail sentences and their property confiscated.
In Georgia, “representatives of the criminal world” can now be imprisoned from three to eight years and “thieves in law” from five to ten years. The law threatens not only “thieves in law” and members of their groups but also their supporters. Some lawyers have criticised the way the law uses slang words such as “thief in law”, “shadow world” and “criminal score-settling”.
“‘Thief in law’ is criminal slang. There is no such concept in law. It means that parliament has legalised thieves’ usage,” said Professor Otar Gamkrelidze, who as one of those who drafted Georgia’s Criminal Code is unhappy that he was not consulted about the new law.
Bezhashvili dismissed this line of criticism, saying the law had been approved by the audit chamber, the presidential state protection service and 13 parliamentary committees. He added, “The Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association has said that their recommendations have not been taken into account, but I can state with full responsibility that the authors of the draft law never received these critical comments.”
A 2004 study entitled “Thieves in law in Georgia” by well-known lawyers Givi Lobzhanidze and Giorgi Zhgenti outlined the extent of the power of the crime lords, estimating that around 30 per cent of revenues in Georgia’s banking system, 40 per cent of income from hotels and restaurants, 60 per cent of the gambling business, 15 per cent of the energy sector, and 40 per cent in the construction industry are in the hands of mafia groups.
It also concluded that organised criminals wield strong political influence, controlling crime groups in Russia and various European cities as well as at home. Last June, Spanish police simultaneously arrested 22 alleged members of the Georgian mafia.
Organised crime is so pervasive that many ordinary people fear the law will hurt them too.
“A couple of ‘thieves in law’ live in my area,” said Tbilisi resident Andro Alpaidze, 60. “One of them spends most of his time in Europe, but if something is stolen from anyone of his neighbours or someone offends them, he’s always ready to help – unlike the police.
“The new law says that not only these criminals but their ‘supporters’ too can be punished. That means that they should arrest me too.”
According to political analyst Gia Nodia, the role of public protectors played by mafia bosses is an institution left over from the Soviet past. “‘Thieves in law’ were encouraged in Communist times, as the authorities used them to control both the criminal world and the public. Their influence among the public has been unlimited up to now,” he said. “The population is intimidated by the criminal world. Most likely, the main aim of the law when it was adopted was to enable citizens not to be afraid to give evidence against criminal leaders.”
In recent times, Georgia has had a number of politicians with strong links to organised crime. For example, Jaba Ioseliani, an influential criminal kingpin who in Soviet times spent 25 years in prison, led the Mkhedrioni paramilitary organisation in the early Nineties and played a leading political role before he was sidelined. He died in 2003 aged 77.
Otar Kvantrishvili, a well-known “thief in law” crime boss based in Russia was described as a “public figure” in Georgia thanks to his philanthropic activities. He was shot dead in Moscow in 1994.
Zaza Alavidze, who has a relative in Tbilisi’s Ortachala prison, thinks crime bosses are better than the police. “Investigators beat my cousin because he refused to denounce a ‘thief in law’,” he said. “Why should he speak badly of him, if he’s done nothing bad to him?
“’Thieves in law’ have been a lot fairer than policemen up to now. When the police search you, they can plant drugs or a weapon in you pocket and that’s the end of you. Nothing can help you if you don’t have a protector or if you don’t pay to get released.”
This commonly-held opinion – that that mafia structures are somehow beneficial – is very dangerous, commented David Darchiashvili, head of Open Society Georgia, the Tbilisi branch of the Soros foundation.
“The strengthening of the mafia is directly proportionate to the weakening of the state, since in contrast to a weak government the mafia offers a model of social protection,” said Darchiashvili. “So it goes without saying that a state machine that considers itself to be normal has decided to root out this system. The state should control the prisons, and not the other way round. And if we want to have a state at all, we should help it in this fight.”
(CRS No. 323, 19-Jan-06)