Kanonieri qurdebi

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Kanonieri qurdebi
Informal practice commonly found in Georgia
Georgia map.png
Map of Georgia, where Kanonieri qurdebi commonly takes place.
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Flag of Georgia.
Entry written by Alexander Kupatadze.
Alexander Kupatadze is affiliated to St Andrews University.

Original Text: Alexander Kupatadze, St Andrews University

Kanonieri qurdebi(gurdebi is plural and gurdi is singular) is best translated in English as thieves-professing-the-code, but is usually translated literally, as ‘thieves-in-law’(in Russian vory-v-zakone). ‘Thieves-in-law’ refers to leaders of organised crime groups in the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Eurasia. They have been defined as ‘networking criminal leaders who engage collectively in mafia activities’[1], and senior criminal figures who ‘maintain, interpret and enforce the thieves’ code’[2]. Like Sicilian mafia godfathers, qurdebi operate within a defined honour code and maintain strict secrecy. This code is often referred to as gageba (‘understandings’) – that is, ‘a set of preserved, ritualised practices and status markers guided by a well-articulated, codified yet fluctuating body of rules’[3].

Data Tutashkhia by Chabua Amirejibi

The fraternity of qurdebi became known as qurduli samkaro (thieves’ world). Formally, all qurdebi are equal in status. However, there are significant differences in terms of influence within and beyond the network depending on the resources an individual qurdi has access to. There are three different factions within the network named after three Georgian cities: the Tbilisi, Kutaisi and Sukhumi networks. These networks have been mostly competing over the resources and influence in Georgia as well as in other countries where Georgian organised crime has been successfully transplanted (Russia, Spain, Austria and France among others). Despite being in competition with each other, the factions also coordinate activities through skhodka, meetings or thieves’ courts where intra and inter-factional conflicts are discussed and new recruits are initiated through ‘baptising’ (‘crowning the candidate’). Qurdebi collectively pool resources to the obshchak, an administrative and trading body and common fund based on voluntary and involuntary (extortion) contributions from various sources both in and outside of the prisons (Varese 2001).Qurdebi manage the expenditure of the obshchak and supervise the inflow of income through makureblebi (‘overseers’), the representatives of the qurdebi in a particular prison or in a given territory.

Most scholarship on the topic finds that thieves-in-law originated in the Soviet gulag labour camps in the 1930s [4][5]. However, the archival evidence from the Caucasian State Okhranka (Tsarist secret service) contained in Georgia suggests that kanonieri qurdebi predated the Soviet Union. A secret letter from an Okhranka officer dated 1908 speaks about the ‘vorovskoy zhargon’ (thieves’ slang) in the Tbilisi city prison (Okhranka Documents, letter N 872, caseload of 1908 contained in Central Historical Archive Fund No 94, case No 126, retrieved 5 June 2011). In the same period the Okhranka confiscated a letter from an inmate that complained about thieves’ extortion and their control of the prisons in Tbilisi (Okhranka Documents, caseload of 1908 contained in Central Historical Archive Fund No 94, case No 126, retrieved 5 June 2011). Qurdebi emerged as an influential power structure in the Soviet gulags because they were empowered by the Soviet authorities to control the gulag population[6](Montefiore 2007[7]). Because the gulag was their birthplace, the impact of qurdebi has been most consistent in prisons, despite their fading influence over politics and the economy towards the end of 1990s.

White Flags by Nodar Dumbadze

In Georgia qurdebi have capitalised on some romanticism attached to the peasant outlaws abragi. One of the most celebrated pieces in contemporary Georgian literature is Data Tutashkhia (1975) by Chabua Amirejibi, which paints a heroic image of a Georgian abragi fighting Russian imperial injustice. The resistance to colonialism coupled with the opportunities provided by crime turned many of the ‘freedom fighters’ into outlaws. Originally, the abragi were men who escaped blood feuds after committing a crime by taking to the mountains. After the Russian Empire came to the South Caucasus in the early 19th century, abragi denoted those resisting the Russians. These circumstances cultivated romanticism towards criminality, which then served as the basis for similar attitudes toward the qurdebi. Another celebrated Georgian author Nodar Dumbadze chronicles the life of a just, pious, and moral qurdi in his 1973 novel White Flags[8].

Georgia contributed disproportionally to the world of Soviet thieves-in-law. This small nation, comprising two percent of the overall population of the Soviet Union, contributed 31.6 percent of the professional criminals active in Soviet Union. In comparison, the much larger Russian population provided 33.1 percent (Serio and Razinkin 1995: 77). Some researchers have explained this disproportionality in terms of cultural traits of Georgians, manifested in risk-taking, honour-based trust and eagerness to use violence[9]. However, the most plausible explanation lies in the strong informal economy that thrived due to the near-monopoly of sub-tropical Georgia over the supply of wine, fruit, tobacco and tea to the closed Soviet market. Georgian criminals gathered extensive resources through what amounted to a de facto ‘tax’ imposed on the domestic shadow economy[10][11]. The commercialisation of qurduli samkaro was not commensurate with original ‘understandings’ that forbade any link with state representatives and owning private property (Afanasyev 1995: 438)[12]. However, in the 1970s and 1980s some of the rules changed or were discarded, and qurdebi have jumped on the burgeoning opportunities generated by legal and illegal markets.

Picture of one of the most representative tattoos of thieves-in-law.

In the 1990s the newly independent post-Soviet Georgia was substantially weakened by lack of public trust in its institutions, and their failure to provide basic public goods such as protection of property rights. This created major demand for the services of kanonieri qurdebi, who stepped in to fill the void and provide the services of protection, dispute resolution and debt collection[13][14]. Businesses and citizens were reluctant to turn to the inefficient and corrupt courts and instead were sought justice through qurdebi. Ironically, government officials and even policemen would be frequently found among those turning to qurdebi for help. Qurdebi also headed groups involved in wide ranging semi-legal and illegal activities including gambling, human kidnapping for ransom, drug smuggling, robberies and car theft. Throughout the post-Soviet period qurdebi evolved into influential power-wielders enjoying extensive links with officials of law enforcement structures and politicians, and sometimes running joint business with them, for example wholesale markets or petrol stations[15].

Jaba Ioseliani (July 10, 1926 – March 4, 2003) was a Georgian politician, writer, thief-in-law and leader of the paramilitary Mkhedrioni organisation

Qurdebi were also successful in generating popular legitimacy and would often engage in charitable works, especially through the widely popular Georgian Orthodox Church. Due to their lavish lifestyle and displays of power, qurdebi became role models among the youth – in 1995 more than 25 percent of school children surveyed said that they aspired to become a qurdi (Serio and Razinkin, 1995: 76).

Due to the large number of thieves, Georgia differed from other post-Soviet republics in terms of impact of this type of organised crime on politics and the economy. In Central Asia, Russia and Ukraine, for example, thieves initially focused more on racketeering and extortion and only later developed political ties, while in Georgia qurdebi penetrated politics immediately after the Soviet breakup. Jaba Ioseliani, qurdi and leader of the paramilitary group Mkhedrioni, became President Eduard Shevardnadze’s deputy in the early 1990s. In the rest of the former Soviet Union thieves can be distinguished from other types of criminal groups that developed outside of the thieves’ world, for example gangs of sportsmen (in particular specialists of martial arts) that moved to organised crime after the abundant Soviet funding for sports had dried up[16]. In Georgia most of the groups representing sportsmen were subordinate to the thieves’ influence.

Toward the end of the 1990s thieves were caught up in violent conflicts with competing criminals and faced an increasingly repressive state that had been investing in its coercive capacity (Varese 2001). As a consequence thieves have gradually lost their influence on politics and the economy, although still maintained their grip over the prisons. In Georgia qurdebi showed the most resilience, through manipulating their links with law enforcement officials and politicians, and dominated illicit markets until the early 2000s[17][18]. Their dominance has been undermined only since the 2003 Rose Revolution, the protest movement that resulted in regime change in Georgia. The Rose Revolution is often described as a popular uprising against rampant corruption and unpunished crime. The state response to qurdebi has changed from tolerance to antagonism in the aftermath of the Revolution, and the new reformist government has integrated the campaign against organised crime into its state-building project. Targeted by policies of zero-tolerance to crime and the legislation modelled on American RICO and Italian anti-mafia laws, qurdebi have lost most of their business assets and their links with the state have been undermined. However, in the penal institutions informal criminal hierarchies have perpetuated, albeit in increasing subordination to the formal authorities[19]. Escaping the domestic crackdown, most qurdebi have moved to Russia or Europe. A number of law enforcement operations in various European countries in 2005-2013 have targeted large criminal gangs headed by Georgian thieves-in-law which have been involved in robberies, theft, money laundering and smuggling.

Notes

  1. Slade G. 2013. Reorganizing Crime: Mafia and Anti -Mafia in Post-Soviet Georgia (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
  2. Galeotti, M. 1998. ‘The Mafiya and the New Russia.’ Australian Journal of Politics and History 44, no. 3: 415–29
  3. Slade G. 2013. Reorganizing Crime: Mafia and Anti -Mafia in Post-Soviet Georgia (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
  4. Chalidze V., 1977. Criminal Russia: Essays on crime int he Soviet Union. 1st edition. New York: Random House.
  5. Applebaum A., 2003. Gulag: A History. New York: Random House Digital, Inc.
  6. Shelley L., 2007. Georgian Organised Crime in L. Shelley, E. R. Scott and A. Latta (eds.), Organized Crime and Corruption in Georgia (New York: Routledge)
  7. Montefiore, S.S., 2007. Stalin: The court of the red tsar. Vintage
  8. Godson, R., D. J. Kenney, M. Litvin and G. Tevzadze, 2004. ‘Building societal support for the rule of law in Georgia.’ Trends in Organized Crime 8, no. 2: 5–27
  9. Mars, G. and Y. Altman, 1983. ‘The cultural bases of Soviet Georgia’s second economy.’ Soviet Studies 35, no. 4: 546–60
  10. Shelley L., 2007. Georgian Organised Crime in L. Shelley, E. R. Scott and A. Latta (eds.), Organized Crime and Corruption in Georgia (New York: Routledge)
  11. Scot E. R., 2015. Familiar Strangers: The Georgian Diaspora and the Multiethnic Soviet Empire (forthcoming from Oxford University Press)
  12. Glonti G. and Lobjanidze G., 2004. Vory-v-zakone: Professional’naya Prestupnost’ v Gruzii. Tbilisi: American University Press
  13. Volkov V., 2002. Violent Entrepreneurs : The Use of Force in the Making of Russian Capitalism. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press)
  14. Slade G. 2013. Reorganizing Crime: Mafia and Anti -Mafia in Post-Soviet Georgia (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
  15. Slade G. 2013. Reorganizing Crime: Mafia and Anti -Mafia in Post-Soviet Georgia (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
  16. Volkov V., 2002. Violent Entrepreneurs : The Use of Force in the Making of Russian Capitalism. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press)
  17. Shelley L., 2007. Georgian Organised Crime in L. Shelley, E. R. Scott and A. Latta (eds.), Organized Crime and Corruption in Georgia (New York: Routledge)
  18. Kupatadze A., 2012. Organised crime, political transitions and state formation in post-Soviet Eurasia. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012
  19. Kupatadze A., 2012. Organised crime, political transitions and state formation in post-Soviet Eurasia. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012