A Dirty Europeanism from Beneath

I have just been reading Misha Glenny’s McMafia. It is excellent; an intelligent tour through the criminal landscape that emerged since the late 1980s, driven by a combination of globalisation, un-globalisation, technical change, and the usual things that fertilise big crime. We hear about the early history of the modern Russian mafia, how the UN Security Council created one of the world’s most effective criminal networks by trying to deny the former Yugoslavia cigarettes, and much more.

Some points that stand out:

1 – Networks

A common trend in all the criminal systems Glenny covers is a shift from hierarchical structures to decentralised ones; the four dons who controlled the Bombay underworld up to the late 1980s are replaced by a shifting confederation, mostly independent, vaguely loyal to Dawood Ibrahim in his Dubai fastness. The traditional prison gang hierarchies of Russia and South Africa are replaced by flat networks of crooks. The multi-criminal smuggling route through the Balkans, once authorised and taxed by the Bulgarian secret police, warps into a complicated weave of different ones open to every thug in southeastern Europe.

2 – The Great Shift

Everywhere Glenny went, both cops and thieves always said the same thing in the same way; in the early 1990s, they were in control and then “something odd happened”. New forms of crime; new actors; new communities; new drugs. Similarly, traditions and habits that kept things roughly in limits and facilitated both illicit and licit business were suddenly torn apart. Grand old yakuza chiefs were murdered in their beds; the harbour suddenly filled with shiny speed boats with unusually deep and thoroughly reinforced cockpits. And wham! Nothing was normal ever again.

3 – Fake Police and Police Fakes

So much of this proliferating mayhem was driven by the people who were meant to oppose it. In Russia and Eastern Europe, a major force was the sheer number of spooks and wrestlers looking for a job, and for that matter, the existing smuggling systems set up by people like East German STASI Colonel Alexander von Schalck-Golodkowski to raise hard currency. But even more important were the strategic decisions taken by world powers, which often created the legal barriers around which criminal profit grew. The economic blockade on the former Yugoslavia was one; the drugs war another.

4 – Complicity

The great spree would never have been possible if so many people hadn’t been customers, to say nothing of direct corruption. Japanese banks, during the great bubble, were delighted to cooperate with yakuza thugs; the tobacco industry saw nothing at all unusual in shipping absurd quantities of cigarettes to tiny Swiss cantons, from where they were re-exported on ex-Soviet cargo aircraft that invariably needed to make refuelling stops in Montenegro, during which the ciggies and the export papers vanished. The cigarettes crossed the Adriatic in wild-arsed powerboats into the hands of the newest Italian mafia, the Sacra Corona Unita of Puglia, and went from there to everywhere in Europe. The aircraft went on to the ex-Soviet Union, to Slovakia’s ZTS-Osos and Bulgaria’s KINTEX arsenals, and brought back arms for the Balkan wars, bought with the government’s share of the profits.

Similarly, the iconic European industrial achievement, GSM, used huge quantities of rare minerals from central Africa and the ex-Soviet Union, which arrived on some of the same aircraft, backloaded from further arms shipments after the Balkan wars were over and the region became an arms exporter again. It’s worth remembering that the secret police of Yugoslavia were well aware of arms dealing, having been a big exporter before the Balkan wars. And, more broadly, millions used prostitutes, smoked dodgy cigarettes, and took cocaine.

5 – The Boss Fallacy

So many cops Glenny quotes had the same experience; they finally caught the Big Boss, but everything got worse afterwards. Once the old sheikh was nailed, they expected the crime rate to fall, but instead something odd happened; all hell broke loose. It wasn’t just that the crooks fought among themselves, which the cops usually welcomed. It was that they competed harder, and that the rules and traditions and habits that usually constrained them were torn away with the traditional hierarchy. Suddenly there were no rules, or rather, there was a savage fight to set the new ones.

And killing the hierarchy changed things more subtly. The structure of the underworld changed; it became decentralised, federal, anarchist. The old hierarchies were repurposed to legitimise the new gangs, which meant that their mythos of leadership and of terror could be extended to anyone whose outfit joined the confederation. Arguably, the new structures were not just more survivable but more efficient and more scalable than the old ones.
On the other hand…

Looking across this shady landscape, though, there are some bright spots. There is something inspiring about the vigour of it all, the refusal to listen to the government, the company, the Big Don, or any other authority. The European Union was very keen to talk revolution in the East, much less to open the doors. But long before they were opened in 2004, unofficial Europe was working hard. And, in fact, it had been at it for years; Ameisenhändler at the Bahnhof Zoo, gastarbeiter from Yugoslavia working all over the continent, InterRailers, university system administrators hooking up X.25 and IP links. I remember that one day in 1995, cheap smokes and Czech lager and high-powered German fireworks suddenly arrived in our valley in the Yorkshire Dales, sold weekly in one of our local pubs. The bus route from Leeds to Osnabrück, a subsidised liberty-bus for BAOR soldiers, was also a clubber-transfer link before the arrival of EasyJet.

Practical Europe, of a sort. Crime is nothing if not practical. One of the telling things about McMafia, as it applies to Europe, is just what a society Europe could have been in the last 15 years with a little more courage early on. And we did pretty well anyway.

4 thoughts on “A Dirty Europeanism from Beneath

  1. It’s a good book (albeit with a truly dreadful paperback cover) – since I’ve started working somewhere with a heavy East European focus, it helped me make sense of the more…porous boundary between the legitimate and the dodgy can be over there.

  2. Sorry, poor proofreading – there’s a superfluous ‘can be’ in my post…

  3. Well, it is to be hoped that this trend will continue and spread to most of the population, frankly. What we’ve been seeing over the last hundred years or so is a trend towards big government where the Governments of countries take more and more money away from the people, and invent more and more absurd rules to try to constrain these people.

    All it will take now is the invention of a very widespread currency (the US Dollar, say, or the Euro) and more and more sophisticated ways of exploiting the legal morass created by Government legislators which is in fact their downfall, coupled with a greater and greater willingness amongst the population to simply dodge unfair tax by fair means or foul. As soon as this happens, Government revenues will tank and the Great Big Government Experiment will come to a slow, shuddering halt.

  4. Pingback: AFOE’s trip on the Orient Express | afoe | A Fistful of Euros | European Opinion

Comments are closed.