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With Mafia Arrests, Spain Turns Suspicious Eye On Post-Soviet Immigrants

  • Michael Hirshman

A Spanish police handout showing two Georgian suspects arrested on March 15.

A Spanish police handout showing two Georgian suspects arrested on March 15.

SANTANDER, Spain -- Maria Shkurnytska immigrated to Spain 12 years ago from Ukraine. Resolving to work hard, she quickly adapted to her new home. She found steady employment, learned Spanish, and became a leader in the local immigrant community here in her adopted city.

Nevertheless, her success story and that of other Eastern European immigrants has not always made them welcome in Spanish society.

When she was invited to speak on a local television station about Oberig, her association of Ukrainian immigrants, she gladly accepted. But then the television anchor introduced her as an immigrant, before reminding viewers of a recent string of burglaries in the region -- implicitly linking the crime wave to Eastern European immigrants.

To Shkurnytska, his words provoked immediate revulsion.

"Inside of me I felt a pain, a shout," she says. "What guilt does our association have and the 99 percent of people [from Eastern Europe] who arrive here only to work -- to work, to find work, and not wanting to cause harm to anyone?"

Eastern Immigrants, Local Crime

The recent arrests in Western Europe of about 80 immigrants from the former Soviet Union -- mainly ethnic Georgians -- for alleged ties to organized crime are unlikely to make their lives any easier.

There is perhaps a particular risk of such guilt by association in Spain, one of the focal points of last week's police operation. Maria and others say biased media coverage of Eastern Europeans' role in Spain's criminal underworld is to blame for distorted stereotypes.

"In any society, there are some villains, some bad people, and here in this community [of Eastern European immigrants in Spain] -- I think in every community here -- there's a small mafia, some bad people," says Natalia Shapovalova, a Ukrainian resident in Madrid and a researcher at Spain's Foundation for International Relations and Foreign Dialogue. "The problem, of course, is the news coverage."

She cites a troubling lack of balance in the treatment of such minorities. "Of course, you will have a lot of cases in the news about some robbery where immigrants from the East or other countries were involved, but you won't have coverage of how many people work every day at nurseries or taking care of elderly people or helping the Spanish economy and so on," Shapovalova says. "You won't find this coverage, and of course, you have these kinds of stereotypes. It's normal."

A Band of Georgians

Those seeking to get beyond such misperceptions cannot help but sigh at recent headlines.

In Spain, at least 21 suspects were detained in last week's police operation. (Twenty-five arrests were made in Austria; additional arrests were also made in France, Italy, Switzerland, and Germany.) In nearly all cases, those arrested were ethnic Georgians.
Suspected mob boss Kakhaber Shushanashvili, an ethnic Georgian, was among those arrested. Operating from Barcelona, Shushanashvili is believed to have run a criminal ring that reached throughout Europe.

Speaking about last week's arrests, Spanish attorney Cesar Utrera Molina admits such news is unhelpful to Eastern immigrants in his country.

"This is news that will not help the reputation of the people who are from [the former Soviet world], but one should not exaggerate the impact it will have on public opinion," Utrera Molina says. "To associate a band of Georgians with all of those from the East is something that I don't think people could easily do -- yet there is certainly a negative dimension."

The apparent prejudice with which many Spaniards view Eastern European immigrants extends, in some cases, to a general ignorance of their nationalities and backgrounds.

Rejecting Cliches

When news first broke of the arrests on March 15, Western European headlines touted yet another crackdown against the "Russian mafia."

RFE/RL's Russian Service correspondent in Madrid, Viktor Cheretsky, says Spanish media continued to refer to the criminals as "Russian mafia," even after it became clear that the ring was composed almost exclusively of ethnic Georgians.

Cheretsky says that the media took hours -- and in some cases even days -- to refer to the arrested men as Georgians rather than Russians.

Cheretsky says Spanish journalists frequently use "Russian mafia" as a blanket term to describe criminal groups from across the entire former Soviet world.

"Any [criminal activity] that relates to Bulgaria or Romania or Poland or even Finland are attributed to 'Russia mafia' on many occasions [in the Spanish press]," Cheretsky says. "Imagine, they arrest a Finnish kingpin and they say he's a Russian mobster -- it's absurd. Above all, [criminals from] the former Soviet countries, from the Baltics, Ukraine, and Georgia -- all are called Russian mafia. This of course is not true."

Cheretsky lays the blame on "bad journalism."

"The police -- and I have good contacts with the police here [in Madrid] -- knew from the beginning that the [latest arrests] did not involve Russians."

Immigrants now make up 12 percent of the Spanish population, with one-third coming from Eastern Europe.

Carmen Martin Nunez is a city councilwoman in Santander. She has worked closely with local activists, like Shkurnytska, on immigration issues.

Martin Nunez says she rejects the cliche linking Eastern European immigrants with criminality.

"They are all people. This is not about groups," Martin Nunez says. "They have not come as groups; they have come one by one. And each one [brings] his hope to work, to make his life here."

But that does not mean the relationship is necessarily trouble-free, she says.

"Are there criminals that come along with them? Of course. In Spain we also have criminals. But we do not say you are a criminal just for being Spanish."

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