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Mafia state

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In politics, a mafia state or pakhanate[1] is a state system where the government is tied with organized crime to the degree when government officials, the police, and/or military became a part of the criminal enterprise.[2][3] According to US diplomats, the expression "mafia state" was coined by Alexander Litvinenko.[4]

Particular applications of the concept[edit]

Mafia in Italy and Yakuza in Japan[edit]

Giulio Andreotti, seven-time Prime Minister of Italy, was charged with having links to the Mafia.

In a critical review of Moisés Naím's essay in Foreign Affairs, Peter Andreas pointed to the long existence of Italian mafia and Japanese Yakuza, writing that there were close relationships between those illicit organisations and respective governments.[3] According to Andreas, these examples speak against incidences of mafia states as a historically new threat.[3]

In Italy, three main mafia organisations originated in the 19th century: the Cosa Nostra originating from the region of Sicily, the Camorra originating from the region of Campania, and the 'Ndrangheta originating from the region of Calabria.[5]

Former Prime Minister of Italy, Giulio Andreotti, had legal action against him, with a trial for mafia association on 27 March 1993 in the city of Palermo.[6][7] The prosecution accused the former prime minister of "[making] available to the mafia association named Cosa Nostra for the defense of its interests and attainment of its criminal goals, the influence and power coming from his position as the leader of a political faction".[7] Prosecutors said in return for electoral support of Salvo Lima and assassination of Andreotti's enemies, he had agreed to protect the Mafia, which had expected him to fix the Maxi Trial. Andreotti's defense was predicated on character attacks against the prosecution's key witnesses, who were themselves involved with the mafia.[7] Andreotti was acquitted on 23 October 1999.[6] However, together with the greater series of corruption cases of Mani pulite, Andreotti's trials marked the purging and renewal of Italy's political system.[6]

The Camorra Casalesi clan rose in the 1980s, gaining control of large areas of the local economy "partly by manipulating politicians and intimidating judges".[8] The clan was heavily involved in the Naples waste management crisis that dumped toxic waste around Campania in the 1990s and 2000s; the boss of the clan, Gaetano Vassallo, admitted to systematically working for 20 years to bribe local politicians and officials to gain their acquiescence to dumping toxic waste.[9][10]

Countries described as mafia states[edit]

Republics, mobs and territories of the former Yugoslavia[edit]

Montenegro's former president Milo Đukanović is often described as having strong links to Montenegrin mafia.[11]

Kosovo, a partially recognised independent state formerly part of Serbia, was called a "mafia state" by Italian MEP Pino Arlacchi in 2011,[12] and also by Moisés Naím in his 2012 essay "Mafia States" in Foreign Affairs. Naím pointed out that Prime Minister of Kosovo Hashim Thaçi is allegedly connected to the heroin trade. Many other crime allegations have been made and investigated by several countries against Thaçi.[citation needed]

Naím also labeled Montenegro as a "mafia state" in the same essay,[13] describing it as a hub for cigarette smuggling.[3]


Transnistria, an unrecognised break-away state from Moldova, has long been described by journalists, researchers, politicians and diplomats as a quasi-state whose economy is dependent on contraband[14] and gunrunning,[15][16][17] with some having directly referred to Transnistria as a mafia state.[18][19]

For instance, in 2002, Moldova's president, Vladimir Voronin, called Transnistria a "residence of international mafia", "smuggling stronghold", and "outpost of Islamic combatants". Attempts of customs blockade followed the allegations. Reacting to the allegations, Russian state-run RTR aired an investigative program revealing that Transnistrian firms were conducting industrial-level manufacturing of small arms purposely for subsequent illegal trafficking via the Ukrainian port of Odesa. According to the program, the trade was controlled by and benefited from Transnistria's founder and then-ruler Igor Smirnov.[20]

However, more recent investigations and monitoring missions did not prove continuity in arms trafficking concerns. According to regular reports of the European Border Assistance Mission to Moldova and Ukraine (EUBAM), there have been no signs of significant weapons smuggling from Transnistria.[citation needed] During the press conference on 30 November 2006, head of EUBAM Ferenc Banfi officially stated that organised smuggling of weapons in Transnistria did not exist.[21] In 2013, Ukrainian Foreign Minister and acting chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Leonid Kozhara gave an interview to El País, commenting on the situation in Transnistria and results of work of the EUBAM mission. According to Kozhara, there have been no cases of arms traffic found.[22]

Some experts from Russia and Transnistria state that allegations of Transnistria being a "mafia state", "black hole of Europe", and "heaven for arms trafficking", etc. are a carefully planned defamation campaign paid by the Moldovan government and aimed at producing a negative image of Transnistria.[23] Officials from the European Union and the OSCE say they have no evidence that the Tiraspol regime has ever trafficked arms or nuclear material. Much of the alarm is attributed to efforts by the Moldovan government to increase pressure on Transnistria.[24]


The term has been used by slain Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko and media to describe the political system in Russia under Vladimir Putin's rule.[25][26][27] This characterization came to prominence following the United States diplomatic cables leak, which revealed that US diplomats viewed Russia as "a corrupt, autocratic kleptocracy centred on the leadership of Vladimir Putin, in which officials, oligarchs and organised crime are bound together to create a 'virtual mafia state.'"[28] In his book titled Mafia State, journalist and author Luke Harding argues that Putin has "created a state peopled by ex-KGB and FSB officers, like himself, [who are] bent on making money above all."[29] In the estimation of American diplomats, "the government [of Russia] effectively [is] the mafia."[30][31][32] Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen has also described Russia as a "mafia state".[33]

According to the New Statesman, "the term had entered the lexicon of expert discussion" several years before the cables leak, "and not as a frivolous metaphor. Those most familiar with the country had come to see it as a kleptocracy with Vladimir Putin in the role of capo di tutti capi, dividing the spoils and preventing turf wars between rival clans of an essentially criminal elite."[34] In 2008, Stephen Blank noted that Russia under Putin is "a state that European officials privately call a Mafia state" that "naturally gravitates toward Mafia-like behavior."[35]

Nikolay Petrov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Centre, said "it's pretty hard to damage the Russian image in the world because it's already not very good".[36]


In a 2001 article, titled the Hungarian octopus [hu], the author conducted an analysis of the actions undertaken by Fidesz, the then newly established governing party in Hungary, aimed at dismantling the institutional framework of the rule of law.[37] This approach introduced novel concepts such as the 'organized over-world', the 'state employing mafia methods', and the 'adopted political family'. While initially met with skepticism by many, who regarded these concepts as metaphors rather than integral elements of a coherent framework, a significant shift occurred a decade later. In the 2010 elections, Fidesz secured a commanding two-thirds majority in Parliament, effectively eliminating institutional barriers to their exercise of power.

Subsequently, both the party and the state itself came under the sway of a single individual, who adeptly applied techniques honed within the party to exert control over society at large. In a departure from the trajectory observed in other post-communist systems, where segments of the party and secret service assumed control over both political power and wealth, Fidesz, as a relative newcomer, aggressively reshaped the elite landscape to assert dominance.

The modus operandi of the post-communist mafia state revolves around concentrating power and wealth within the confines of the clan. However, unlike traditional mafia structures reliant on direct coercion, the mafia state achieves its objectives through ostensibly legitimate means such as parliamentary legislation, legal prosecution, tax enforcement, police action, and utilization of secret services.[37]

This emerging conceptual framework holds significance not only within the Hungarian context but also resonates with other post-communist nations grappling with autocratic governance structures.


For more than half a century, Syria has been under the tight grip of the Assad dynasty, and its ruling system has been described as a mafia state.[38] Due to the Syrian economy being dominated by business people tied to Assad family, control of various services like electricity by loyalist warlords, etc. more than 90% of Syrians live in poverty. The regime also profits from a multi-billion dollar captagon industry, made of a network consisting of over 35 manufacturing centres and factories, known as the "Syndicate" (Niqabeh).[39] Assad's wife Asma stripped the assets of pro-Assad billionaire Rami Makhlouf and subsequently took control of all foreign charities and UN aid money; enabling the Assads to own revenue money directly. The fall of Rami Makhlouf led to widespread characterisations of Assad acting as a crime boss presiding over "a crime syndicate simply designed to enrich himself and his family", deploying violence to advance the interests of his mafia.[40] Businessman Ribal al-Assad, a cousin of Bashar al-Assad who lives in exile outlines the situation:

"When it's all boiled down, the family is still in charge.. They are very sensitive to internal issues and they know how to manage them. They have a saying: "You may not have to listen to your cousins, but you do need to listen to their mothers."[40]

Various academics compare Assad's reign to tribal rule, with Assad as the tribal chieftain glorified by the system and extolled as its saviour. Syrian-French Professor of Sociology Burhan Ghalioun asserts that Bashar al-Assad doesn't see Syrians as an independent people, but rather as guests in his family property. Hence, Assad's dictatorship is akin to the colonial project of an invading empire, according to Ghalioun.[41][42] Syrian historian Rana Kabbani designates Assad's dynastic rule as "internal colonialism" owing to the deep disconnect of the regime's post-colonial ruling classes from its native population and their blatant disregard for Syrian wealth and lives.[43][41] Describing how neo-Ba'athist ideologues and Assadist security apparatus constructed a totalitarian state built around cult of personality to the Assad dynasty, Rana Kabbani writes:

"When Bashar al-Assad's father, Hafez, came to power through yet another violent army squabble leading to his coup of 1970, an alarming cult of the leader was systematically formed around him, modelled on Ceausescu. The Romanian dictator was Assad's political ally, strategic adviser in matters of popular repression, and close personal and family friend...In the government school I attended in Damascus between 1971 and 1974, a process of wholesale brainwashing had begun. It was designed to create a population with no political personality or affiliation – other than to the head of what would become, in my children's generation, a vindictive family mafia, monopolising business and power with the crudest of propaganda machines and the most lethal of security services."[43]


The scholar of Law and Economics Edgardo Buscaglia describes the political system of Mexico as a "Mafiacracy". Buscaglia characterises the condition between the state, the economy and organized crime in Mexico as a mutual interweaving,[44] Mexico has also been labeled as a Narco-state (a political and economic term applied to countries where all legitimate institutions become penetrated by the power and wealth of the illegal drug trade).[45]


Venezuela under President Hugo Chávez has also been evaluated as creating the conditions for President Nicolás Maduro to consolidate a "mafia state", according to political scientists in Policy Studies in 2021.[46] Moisés Naím, Venezuelan writer and the author of Illicit: How Smugglers, Traffickers, and Copycats Are Hijacking the Global Economy, wrote in an article for the American magazine Foreign Policy: "In mafia states such as Bulgaria, Guinea-Bissau, Montenegro, Myanmar, Ukraine, and Venezuela, the national interest and the interests of organised crime are now inextricably intertwined."[47]

During the 1990s, Aruba, an overseas constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, was alleged to be a mafia state under then Prime Minister Henny Eman. The Sicilian Cuntrera-Caruana Mafia clan was said to "own" over 60% of the island through investments in hotels, casinos, and donations towards Eman's election campaign. These claims later turned out to be exaggerated, however.[48][49]

According to journalist Masha Gessen, in 2016, sociologist Bálint Magyar popularized the term "mafia state" to describe the administration of Viktor Orbán in Hungary. Magyar argued that Orbán's method of taking power in Hungary, removing rivals and politicizing institutions for personal power, created a kind of regime known as a "mafia state". Magyar said that other states besides Hungary included Azerbaijan, Russia, and Kazakhstan as of 2016.[33]

In 2010, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi had labelled Switzerland as a mafia state, stating that "Switzerland is behaving like a criminal organisation and it is involved in money laundering, assassinations and terrorism."[50]

Jonathan Benton, the former head of a United Kingdom anti-corruption agency, described Malta as a "mafia state" where money laundering transactions of hundreds of millions of euros are made every year without any problem. He made this statement while speaking on BBC radio following the murder of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.[51]

See also[edit]

Related concepts[edit]


  1. ^ Young, Cathy (16 July 2014). "Putin's New Old Russia".
  2. ^ Mafia States: Organized Crime Takes Office by Moisés Naím, Foreign Affairs.
  3. ^ a b c d Andreas, Peter (1 July 2012). "Measuring the Mafia-State Menace: Are Government-Backed Gangs a Grave New Threat?". Foreign Affairs (July/August 2012). Retrieved 25 May 2013.
  4. ^ Luhn, Alec; Harding, Luke (5 November 2015). "Spain issues arrest warrants for Russian officials close to Putin". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 27 April 2016.
  5. ^ Letizia, Paoli (May 2016). Oxford Handbook of Italian Politics. Oxford University Press. pp. 670–671. ISBN 9780199669745.
  6. ^ a b c Briquet, Jean-Louis (1999). "The Faltering Transition". Italian Politics. 15: 123–138. JSTOR 43486480.
  7. ^ a b c Allum, Percy (1997). "Statesman or Godfather? The Andreotti Trials". Italian Politics. 12: 219–232. JSTOR 43039678.
  8. ^ "The toxic reason a mafia boss became a police informant". BBC News. 30 October 2013.
  9. ^ "Così ho avvelenato Napoli". l'Espresso. 11 September 2008. Archived from the original on 24 September 2013. Retrieved 24 October 2008.
  10. ^ "Inchiesta sui veleni a Napoli perquisiti l'Espresso e due reporter". la Repubblica. 12 September 2009. Retrieved 26 September 2008.
  11. ^ "OCCRP announces 2015 Organized Crime and Corruption ‘Person of the Year’ Award". Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.
  12. ^ "Kosovo is "mafia state", says Italian MEP". B92.net. Archived from the original on 29 November 2014. Retrieved 25 May 2013.
  13. ^ Andreas, Peter (1 July 2012). "Measuring the Mafia-State Menace". Foreign Affairs (July/August 2012). Foreignaffairs.com. Retrieved 25 May 2013.
  14. ^ "An illegal business that's smoking". Business New Europe. 18 April 2012. Archived from the original on 2 January 2014. Retrieved 3 September 2013.
  15. ^ "Ющенко: Украина недополучает из-за контрабанды из Приднестровья". Korrespondent. 23 March 2006. Retrieved 3 September 2013.
  16. ^ "Hotbed of weapons deals". The Washington Times. 18 January 2004. Retrieved 3 September 2013.
  17. ^ СВИРИДЕНКО, АЛЕКСАНДР; НЕПРЯХИНА, НАТАЛИЯ (3 October 2006). "Приднестровье самоизолировалось". Kommersant-Ukraine. Archived from the original on 2 January 2014. Retrieved 3 September 2013.
  18. ^ "Fear, football and torture – undercover in Transnistria". Channel 4. 1 April 2014.
  19. ^ "Moldova: Situation analysis and trend assessment" (Report). United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. October 2004. Retrieved 11 November 2022.
  20. ^ Bulavchenko, Aliona (8 February 2002). ДНЕСТРОВСКИЕ ПОРОГИ. Zerkalo Nedeli (in Russian). Archived from the original on 2 January 2014. Retrieved 2 January 2014.
  21. ^ Fragment of EUBAM press-conference regarding Mission activities in 2004-2006 Transnistrian Customs Committee Press-Service.
  22. ^ Queremos zonas de libre comercio tanto al Este como hacia el Oeste El Pais. 4 June 2013.
  23. ^ Some aspects of administrative legal regime of customs activities of Transnistria in context of work of international monitoring missions Customs and Science. 12 May 2011.
  24. ^ Moldova: Western Diplomats Say Reports Of Smuggling From Transdniester Likely Exaggerated Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. October 11, 2005.
  25. ^ Putin's Russia 'now a mafia state', BBC
  26. ^ Wikileaks: Russia branded 'mafia state' in cables, BBC
  27. ^ British MPs paint scary picture of Putin's Russia, EUObserver
  28. ^ WikiLeaks cables condemn Russia as 'mafia state', The Guardian
  29. ^ Expelled Moscow correspondent claims Russia is mafia state, abc.net.au
  30. ^ Below Surface, U.S. Has Dim View of Putin and Russia, The New York Times
  31. ^ Russia - Mafia State: It's important to tell the truth about Putin's Russia, CNN
  32. ^ Stephen Holmes, Fragments of a Defunct State, London Review of Books
  33. ^ a b Gessen, Masha. "Putin: The Rule of the Family | Masha Gessen". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved 14 April 2022.
  34. ^ Review: Mafia State, New Statesman
  35. ^ Stephen Blank (2008): What Comes After the Russo–Georgian War? What's at Stake in the CIS, American Foreign Policy Interests, 30:6, 379–391
  36. ^ Russia’s "mafia state" image no disaster, euronews
  37. ^ a b Magyar, Bálint (10 February 2016). Post-Communist Mafia State: The Case of Hungary. Budapest: Central European University Press. ISBN 978-615-5513-54-1.
  38. ^ "Mafia State". London Review of Books. 3 November 2011. Archived from the original on 14 August 2022.
  39. ^ "Bashar al-Assad is hollowing out Syria's ravaged state". The Economist. 16 June 2022. Archived from the original on 1 July 2022.
  40. ^ a b Chulov, Martin (26 May 2021). "'Mob boss' Assad's dynasty tightens grip over husk of Syria". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 4 June 2021.
  41. ^ a b Hashemi, Postel, Nader, Danny; Hashemi, Nader (2013). "Syria, Savagery, and Self-Determination". Syria, Savagery, and Self-Determination: What the Anti-Interventionists Are Missing. London, England: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press. pp. 229, 230. ISBN 978-0-262-02683-3.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  42. ^ Fisk, Robert (7 May 2011). "Robert Fisk: Truth and reconciliation? It won't happen in Syria". Independent.
  43. ^ a b Kabbani, Rana (30 March 2011). "From the Turks to Assad: to us Syrians it is all brutal colonialism". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 12 August 2022.
  44. ^ Die Zeit-Online: Interview with Edgardo Buscaglia (German-speaking Article)
  45. ^ "Ven en EU a México como 'narcoestado'". 16 September 2017.
  46. ^ McCarthy-Jones, Anthea; Turner, Mark (10 December 2021). "What is a "Mafia State" and how is one created?". Policy Studies. 43 (6): 1195–1215. doi:10.1080/01442872.2021.2012141. ISSN 0144-2872. S2CID 245061632.
  47. ^ "Mafia States". Foreign Policy. 2012.
  48. ^ The Rothschilds of the Mafia on Aruba, Transnational Organized Crime, Vol. 3, No. 2, Summer 1997
  49. ^ (in Dutch) Arubaanse minister vertelt halve waarheid drugsmaffia, by Tom Blickman, Het Parool, October 15, 1997
  50. ^ "Gaddafi labels Switzerland a 'mafia state'". The Sydney Morning Herald. 4 May 2010.
  51. ^ Ltd, Allied Newspapers. "Ex-British anti-corruption boss dubs Malta 'mafia state'". Times of Malta. Retrieved 14 October 2018.

Further reading[edit]

  • Luke Harding (2012). Mafia State: How One Reporter Became an Enemy of the Brutal New Russia. Guardian Books. ISBN 978-0-85265-249-7.
  • Naím, M. (2012). "Mafia states: Organized crime takes office." Foreign Affairs, 91, 100.
  • Wang, P. & Blancke, S. (2014). "Mafia State: The Evolving Threat of North Korean Narcotics Trafficking." The RUSI Journal. 159 (5). 52–59.