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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Spanish Arrests Expose a New Kind of Mafia

ReutersShushanashvili, right, and another Georgian suspect pictured in a photo released by Spanish police last week.

When Spanish police announced the arrest of about 80 reputed mobsters across Europe last week, many media reports trumpeted the development as the latest crackdown on the Russian mafia.

But soon the reporting shifted and introduced a hitherto little-noticed phenomenon in the West: the Georgian mafia.

The leader of the organized crime group's Spanish operations was identified as Khaber, or Kakhaber, Shushanashvili, and the gang was said to be in contact with convicted Georgian crime boss Zakhar Kalashov, who has been imprisoned in Spain since 2006.

Austria reported the biggest number of arrests — 25, including prominent reputed Georgian mobster Zaal Makharoblidze. The gang, made up mostly of asylum seekers, was responsible for 30 percent of a recent spate in burglaries in Vienna, said Franz Lang, director of Austria's Federal Criminal Investigation Office.

 Russian media were quick to notice the change.

"The Russian mafia turned out to be Georgian," read a headline in the Trud mass-circulation daily.

Russia Today, the state-controlled English-language television channel, suggested a lapse in Western reporting.

"Initial reports suggested that those detained belonged to the so-called Russian mafia, as people of former Soviet states are often mistakenly referred to as Russian in the West," a presenter said in a March 15 news broadcast.

 Dmitry Rogozin, Moscow's outspoken representative to NATO, said the reports reflected a deep bias. "Apparently for the Western media Georgia is always a good thing and Russia is always a bad thing," he wrote in his Twitter blog.

 The Russian-Georgian divide has been especially bitter since the two countries fought over South Ossetia in 2008, a war in which Russian officials accused Western reporters of siding with Georgia.

But the mafia stereotyping is also deplored by some Western journalists. "I think there is a lot of prejudice and a great deal of inappropriate use" of the term "Russian mafia," said Pilar Bonet, Moscow bureau chief of the El Pais daily. "I really recommend that the Russian ambassador to Spain protests and even goes to court when this happens."

Russian officials have long criticized Western crime reports about Russians. Timur Lakhonin, head of the Interior Ministry's Interpol section, said in December that the whole concept of a Russian mafia was nothing but a myth. "There is no data showing any existing organized crime structures that consist of former Russian citizens," he told reporters.

Yet Georgian officials also frown at the notion of putting blame on their country.

Georgi Kandelaki, deputy head of the Georgian parliament's international affairs committee, said the whole dispute was pointless.

"The fact that they caught Georgian criminals operating abroad shows that the [criminals] have no way of operating in Georgia," he told The Moscow Times on Sunday.

Kandelaki added that organized crime from his country is the most vibrant in Russia. "Look at the Georgian thieves-in-law — their number in Georgia is close to zero and most of them are in Moscow," he said.

So-called thieves-in-law are a fraternity of criminals that maintains its own code of behavior, laws, courts, leaders and initiation rites and that disdains any institution other than its own.

In fact, captured Georgian thieves-in-law have surfaced in national media reports recently. On Friday, Interfax reported that the Moscow police had arrested Merab Gogia, a 56-year-old suspected mobster, on suspicion of selling illegal drugs.

Speculation has also been mounting that Moscow might extradite Tariel Oniani, an ethnic Georgian believed to be one of Russia's most powerful mobsters, to Spanish authorities. Oniani was arrested during a dramatic helicopter raid outside Moscow in July 2008 as dozens of reputed crime bosses gathered on a yacht to settle a rift.

Spain has reportedly requested Oniani's extradition, along with three other suspects, Leon Lann, Konstantin Manukyan and Vladimir Tyurin.

A Spanish Embassy spokesman said Friday that he would not comment on extradition issues.

Yevgeny Vyshenkov, a former police detective and organized crime expert at the St. Petersburg-based Agency of Journalistic Investigations, said issues like ethnicity and citizenship matter little in a global problem like organized crime. What is important is where mobsters decide to operate, he said.

"Most of them live in Russia, mainly in Moscow, and have their have assets in the capital," Vyshenkov said.