The Dangers of Illicit Trade–Funded Organized Crime in the Western Balkans

September 13, 2019
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If you ever come across the subject of criminal organizations in the Balkans, it’s likely that the first thing that comes to mind is arms trafficking. And that is, indeed, a significant issue: The Balkan wars of the 1990s, the civil unrest in Albania in 1997 and the instability in North Macedonia in 2001 have left in their wake a devastating legacy in the region—millions of unused weapons. Some of these have surfaced in criminal cases involving European organized groups such as Italian mafia or biker gangs in Nordic countries. However, the problem is much more complex than it may seem … and involves illicit trade.

With its latest report, published in May 2019, the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime identifies hot spots in the region for criminal activities such as human, drugs and arms trafficking. Six regions—Albania, Bosnia Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia—were identified as places rife with opportunities for organized crime to grow.

An issue that goes back many years

To better understand why organized crime thrived and took root in the Western Balkans, researchers from the Global Initiative focused on the socio-economic background of the region. In this area, the situation proves to be particularly favorable to illicit trade; the report emphasizes that the Western Balkans “region is situated between the world’s biggest producer of opium, namely Afghanistan, and the biggest market for heroin, namely Western Europe.”

In 2005, in an effort to prevent this region from becoming a strategic gateway to the EU for smuggling, the European Commission mandated the European Union Border Assistance Mission to Moldova and Ukraine (EUBAM) to provide effective assistance in preventing smuggling of people and goods at the border between the EU and the Western Balkans. Nonetheless, the Global Initiative warns that a big-picture approach must be adopted to solve this problem: “Improvements in infrastructure without improvements in law enforcement and border management (such as the more effective use of technology, trans-border cooperation and intelligence-led policing) will merely increase the efficiency of traffickers.”

The European Commission has also recently stated that the countries of the Western Balkans “show clear elements of state capture, including links with organized crime and corruption at all levels of government and administration, as well as a strong entanglement of public and private interests.”

Also of concern are areas where jurisdiction is contested, which can serve to limit effective government control. “Those in relatively remote areas are often underdeveloped, neglected by the central government and reliant on informal economies for survival. Places where these three factors overlap have a higher probability of being hot spots for organized crime,” explains the Global Initiative report.

Finally, the scourge of illicit trade benefits from strong economic vulnerabilities that continue, even if the overall economic situation is improving in the region. “Unemployment is falling [in these areas], but at an average of 20.9% in 2018 across the six nations, it is still more than three times higher than the EU average, and many people are trapped in long-term unemployment” detailed the report.

Cigarette smuggling

The illicit cigarette trade, often linked with human trafficking, can also become a major funding source for criminal organizations in the Balkans.

When addressing cigarette trafficking in Montenegro, the Global Initiative report talks about the threats surrounding the port of Bar. In 2018, more than 43 million cigarettes entering this port were confiscated, revealed a source close to port officials to the Global Initiative team. Two main streams are likely fueling this massive volume: Cigarettes made in Montenegro are shipped from Bar, while cigarettes coming from abroad are said to come through Bar for re-export. In the report, a source reveals that “the export of cigarettes is so significant (and connected to people of influence), that apparently some warehouses at the port are kept only for smuggled cigarettes, and private companies are in charge of loading and unloading the containers.”

Don’t think, however, that Montenegro has a monopoly on the production and trafficking of illicit cigarettes—the report also identifies Bosnia Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia as traffic sources.

Working toward a solution

To better understand what must be done to solve the illicit trade issue, we must acknowledge that these crimes are not operating in a vacuum. An important component is the demand from EU countries for smuggled or counterfeit products coming from the Western Balkans.

Thus, the EU member states have a deep interest to cooperate with local enforcement and political authorities. “The EU has considerable leverage, a self-interest and a shared responsibility to disrupt these markets and reduce the vulnerability of the Western Balkans to organized crime,” said Mark Shaw, the director of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime.

It is clear that the EU has potential to wield powerful leverage in curbing the problem of illicit trade in countries that want to join the 28. But solving this issue goes beyond any actions that may be taken by this intergovernmental body, or even by any single government or industry; cooperation between EU and non-EU law enforcement and other government agencies will be critical… and so will be the collaboration with the private sector. Everyone has a role to play to eradicate illicit trade.


Written by STOP: ILLEGAL

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