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Book Reviews - General (4)

Gavin Slade, Reorganizing crime: Mafia and anti-Mafia in post-Soviet Georgia

Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013, xiii, 217 pages
Matthew Light
Bibliographical reference

Gavin Slade, Reorganizing crime: Mafia and anti-Mafia in post-Soviet Georgia, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013, xiii, 217 pages

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Political Science
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1Why do some campaigns against the mafia succeed, whereas others fail? What makes it possible to defeat a mafia? Governments all over the world, from the United States to Latin America to Italy, have been wrestling with these questions for years. Now Gavin Slade has addressed them in an elegant case study of post-Soviet Georgia. Integrating both state policies and mafia characteristics into a coherent theory of mafia survival and collapse, Reorganizing Crime should engage both post-Soviet researchers and scholars of organized crime.

2Georgia is an ideal case to examine these questions. Soviet Georgia was a hotbed of organized crime, notably the Soviet criminal fraternity known as the “thieves in law”. In the post-Soviet period, gangsters of various stripes operated with impunity and constituted a virtual parallel state; indeed, they successfully coopted many government institutions. Then, in 2003, President Mikheil Saakashvili came to power in the so-called “Rose Revolution” promising to finish off the mafia. To the surprise of many, he largely kept this promise. By 2006, virtually every thief in law had been imprisoned or fled the country. The power of the mafia in Georgia was demonstrably broken, and Saakashvili bathed in international accolades. In the most systematic scholarly analysis to date, Slade offers a provocative interpretation of this dramatic story. Yes, the Georgian government launched an effective campaign against the mafia. But in addition, the Georgian mafia itself was far weaker than many assumed.

3Slade’s study builds on the work of scholars such as Diego Gambetta, Federico Varese, and Charles Tilly. He contributes an important new insight to the study of organized crime in the concept of mafia “resilience,” that is, the ability of a criminal organization to withstand attack. Such resilience encompasses characteristics such as the mafia’s ability to absorb and deploy resources effectively, select appropriate members, manage intra-group relations, and maintain public legitimacy. On all these parameters, the Georgian thieves in law were already far gone in decay well before Saakashvili launched his campaign against them. Although the thieves were staunch opponents of the Soviet regime, Slade argues that they actually relied on it to structure their activities. As a result, although 1990s Georgia seemed like a paradise for the mafia, in fact, the state’s very weakness and the increased opportunities for organized crime activity actually contributed to the thieves’ decay.

4Thus, Post-Soviet Georgian thieves experienced more intense and violent competition with one another, as well as with other organized criminals, leading some thieves to decamp to more peaceful locales and manage their Georgian businesses remotely. Likewise, Soviet prisons had operated as virtual proving grounds for the thieves, allowing them to vet prospective members to ensure they had the required skills, dispositions, and values. In the post-Soviet free-for-all, this proving ground was lost, and the quality of recruits declined substantially. In the Soviet Union, the thieves had cultivated a reputation as honourable men, governed by a strict code of conduct. While not romanticizing this past, Slade notes that in the post-Soviet period the thieves became increasingly materialistic, and relinquished many of these restraints. By the early 2000s, Georgians increasingly saw them as greedy and unprincipled.

5Slade also analyzes the anti-mafia campaign. In Saakashvili, the mafia faced an adversary far more ruthless than any they had encountered. Several factors promoted his campaign’s success. First, it was a virtual blitzkrieg of arrests and prosecutions that gave the mafia little time to regroup. Second, Saakashvili prepared his assault on the thieves by first purging the police and prison service of corrupt officials, and staffing them with zealous new recruits. Third, the anti-mafia campaign sacrificed due process, relying on extra-legal asset seizures, coercive plea-bargaining, and a pliant judiciary. Slade’s response to this campaign is properly nuanced. While its success cannot be denied, and it may have been unavoidable, Georgia’s methods probably could not be employed in an established democracy. Saakashvili’s war on crime also led to draconian criminal justice policies and the related prison abuses that in 2012-2013 brought down his government.

6This book is tightly argued and methodologically rigourous. Slade draws on a range of sources, including interviews with mafia figures and officials, as well as very extensive records from Soviet and Georgian police archives. The archival data are deployed skillfully to substantiate major claims. For example, Slade cites figures on prior convictions of new thieves in law in the 1980s and 1990s to demonstrate the declining significance of prison experience for recruits to the Georgian mafia. And he uses homicide data to document his claim that competition between the thieves was becoming more intense and violent.

7Reorganizing Crime is also an important study of post-Soviet Georgia, addressing one of the most puzzling questions concerning that country: why it was such a hotbed of organized crime for so long. Slade effectively demolishes the widespread view that Georgia’s mafia pre-eminence resulted from particular Georgian cultural characteristics. Instead, he argues that organized crime proliferated in post-Soviet Georgia because of the republic’s unusually large “second economy”, that is, illicit non-state economic activity involving Georgia’s highly productive fruit and vegetable farming as well as its tourism business. The booming second economy suffered from a lack of governance and regulation that in turn generated demand for the mafia’s protection services. The early chapters of the book constitute a lucid introduction to Soviet organized crime and Georgia’s specific role in it.

8And of course Slade also contributes significantly to research on the mafia. In this book he develops an integrated model to make sense of the varied consequences of anti-mafia campaigns, and in particular why some anti-mafia crackdowns (such as in Mexico) fail, despite massive commitments of government resources and coercion. Indeed, this point holds important implications for policy-makers as well as scholars. For post-Soviet scholars, it is heartening that a study of our region could yield so many insights for global anti-mafia campaigns.

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Electronic reference

Matthew Light, Gavin Slade, Reorganizing crime: Mafia and anti-Mafia in post-Soviet GeorgiaThe Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 17 | 2016, Online since 31 January 2016, connection on 28 January 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Matthew Light

University of Toronto

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