At the end of March 2017, an agreement on visa-free travel between the European Union and Georgia came into effect for their citizens. Since it entered into force, overall, more than 300,000 Georgian residents have travelled to EU countries. And according to statistics compiled by the European Union, approximately 70,000 of these people (i.e. more than 20% of the total) have not returned back home after their 3-month stays, i.e. they chose to remain in Europe illegally. Most of the people that did not come back are ordinary Georgian citizens who set their sights on Europe (once the borders were opened) and on respectable salaries there that they could not earn in Georgia in recent years.
According to a report on the impact of visa liberalization on countries of destination published by the European Commission, most Georgian citizens who had chosen to remain in the EU illegally are residing in Germany and Greece.
However, aside from ordinary Georgians that moved to the EU for work purposes, there were thousands of criminals among the immigrants who quickly established local affiliates of Georgian criminal organizations (COs) in Europe. This caused additional problems for European law enforcement agencies two years after the visa free regime with Georgia had come into effect, first and foremost, because of a substantial number of criminals among the Georgian immigrants to the EU.
It is also worth highlighting that even before the agreement between the European Union and Georgia was signed, Europe had already been experiencing problems associated with the growing presence of Georgian COs. Out of all the Western European nations, Greece, France and Spain had been most affected by this influx of criminals. According to France’s Sirasco (Service d’information, de renseignement et d’analyse stratégique sur la criminalité organisée / Department of Information, Intelligence and Strategic Analysis on Organized Crime), Georgian mob groups fairly quickly took over Albanian mafia’s territory. They gained control over the second largest (in size) Greek port in the city of Thessaloniki as well as trade routes for shipping contraband goods that link the Balkans with the nations of Western Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Subsequently, members of Georgian organized criminal organizations spread their influence at first to Spain, and then to France. From 2008 to 2010 alone, the number of crimes associated with activities of Georgian COs and investigated by the French police or the National Gendarmerie rose by 33% According to police data, in 2010, there were 1,650 Georgian mobsters in France engaged in racketeering and other crimes.
As a result, European law enforcement agencies began to carry out regular raids in a number of EU countries in order to disrupt operations of the Georgian criminal groups.
After the agreement between the EU and Georgia on visa-free travel for their citizens had come into effect, criminal activity of Georgian mobsters increased, as did the intensity of Europol’s battle against these criminals. Consequently, over last year alone, police forces from France, Spain and Greece carried out 18 sweeping special operations aimed against Georgian criminal organizations and arrested more than 100 people in the act.
The European Commission is convinced that Georgian organized crime is a serious issue plaguing the relations between the EU and Georgia. The European Commission has conceded that Georgian mob groups are, at present, described as powerful organizations with a substantial influence in the EU, especially in France, Greece, Italy, Spain and Germany. Georgian citizenship is commonly associated, along with several other nationalities, with serious and organized criminal activity in Europe. According to the European Commission report, Georgian gangsters are very mobile and primarily involved in organized crime linked to real estate, corruption, document fraud, extortion and racketeering. These groups of criminals pose a serious threat to the EU because their control over black markets is growing gradually, and they are collaborating with other criminal organizations outside of the European Union. Georgian COs are becoming increasingly engaged in laundering of funds earned by other criminal groups in the EU, and are involved in fraudulent schemes in Israel, China and Hong Kong.
As a result, when communicating with members of the Georgian government, high-ranking EU politicians and leaders of European nations have more and more often warned Tbilisi about the unavoidable suspension of the visa free regime if the Georgian leadership fails to resolve the pressing issues and stem the flow of criminals as well as illegal immigrants (including asylum seekers) into the EU.
Having understood that the termination of visa free travel could lead to a political death of the ruling Georgian Dream party, Tbilisi decided to take truly extraordinary measures in order to somehow assuage EU’s concerns. Hence, Georgia deployed special police attachés to the “problem” EU nations so that they could assist local law enforcement agencies in their battle against Georgian criminals. It is also quite noteworthy that there are no cultural or military attachés in Georgia’s embassies in some European nations. However, a police attaché is already there, which is a clear illustration of Tbilisi’s priorities when it comes to their diplomatic efforts in the EU.
These police attachés are, as a rule, experienced members of Georgian law enforcement agencies who can recognize (on account of their prior policing duties) many of their compatriots from criminal organizations. In a number of European nations, especially in Greece, Spain and France, they are involved in numerous special operations, staged recently, that are aimed against Georgian criminal organizations. And such cooperation between law enforcement agencies operating in the EU with a nation that is not a member of the European Union is far from ordinary.
During an interview with Euronews at the end of August, Salome Zourabichvili, the President of Georgia, said that Georgians did not strive to go to Europe but were already Europeans. Well, no one can argue with such a statement, or the fact that Georgia’s criminal organizations established their bases in Europe a long time ago and have been more and more actively exploring opportunities the EU has to offer in recent years.
As previously mentioned in the New Eastern Outlook, it is quite unfortunate that Georgia, a beautiful country with a rich, unique culture and outstanding artists, has in recent years become widely known for its armed conflict against South Ossetia and Abkhazia in August 2008 (which was initiated by political opportunist and war criminal Mikheil Saakashvili), and also for criminal activities of its mob organizations.
Vladimir Odintsov, expert politologist, exclusively for the online magazine ‘New Eastern Outlook’.