(Some further thoughts to complement my initial, snap response, ‘Europe-wide arrests of Georgian gangsters, with senior Kutaisi vor seized in Prague’)
On 18 June, police in six European countries carried out coordinated operations, arresting 18 alleged members of the Georgian organized crime group known as the Kutaisi clan. Coordinated by the Italian National Police’s Central Operational Service and the Bari city Squadra Mobile (flying squad), these arrests netted 13 alleged vory v zakone (‘thieves in law’ or ‘thieves within the code’). Overall, there were 7 arrests in Italy, 2 in the Czech Republic, 5 in Lithuania, 2 in Portugal, one in France and one in Hungary. (Some Italian reports also cite arrests in Moscow, but I have yet to see that confirmed.)
This operation, the outcome of an 18-month investigation, was described by Europol as “one of the most significant blows against clans controlled by this high-ranking, elite of the world of Russian-speaking organised crime.”
Perhaps most interesting is that it appears—although this has not been confirmed—that the Hungarian arrest was of Merab Dzhangveladze (“Dzhango”/”Django”), the head of the Kutaisi grouping, and a major player within the Georgian underworld in both Georgia and Russia.
He is a close ally of Tariel Oniani (“Taro”), the vicious senior Georgian gang leader in Russia. He was also a sworn enemy of Aslan Usoyan (“Ded Hasan”), murdered in Moscow in January. Usoyan had formally had Dzhangveladze stripped of his vor v zakone status in 2008, as part of a tit-for-tat struggle with Taro, although this means little in today’s more diffuse and opportunistic underworld. Dzhangveladze may well have been behind the assassinations of both Usoyan and Vyacheslav Ivankov (“Yaponchik”) and has in many ways been Oniani’s right hand while he is in prison.
If Dzhangveladze has indeed been arrested, then this turns a serious blow to the Kutaisi into a devastating one. His brother Levon has in the past acted as his interim lieutenant, but lacks the stature to hold the group together for long. The Kutaisi clan, with an estimated 50 vory v zakone, is one of the most significant Georgian organized crime groups, not least amongst the so-called lavrushniki (“bay leaves”), Georgian gangsters within the Russian underworld. It certainly delivers a serious blow to the extensive Georgian—and, by extension, Eurasian—organized crime in Europe, as well as another example of the increasingly effective coordination of the struggle against them by European police forces.
However, this may also play to underworld developments in Russia. At present, the Usoyan and Oniani networks are locked in a phony war over both deep feuds and future dominance of the “mountaineer” fraction of the underworld, not so much a cold war as a tepid one that could quickly heat up further. If Dzhangveladze is taken out of the picture for long and if the Kutaisi clan are not able to bounce back quickly—two distinct “ifs”—then it does undermine Oniani. It could even embolden Chanturia, Usoyan’s successor, to strike…