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Balkan Border Issues Tackled

Inadequate frontier controls have allowed drug smuggling, gunrunning and human trafficking to flourish.
By Evridika Saskova

An agreement to strengthen border security and crack down on organised crime is being hailed as a major step forward for the Balkans.


The breakthrough came at a conference at Lake Ohrid last week, in which western Balkan leaders agreed a new phase of cross-border cooperation to boost their chances of joining the European Union.


Macedonian prime minister Branko Crvenkovski told the media, “As organised crime is trans-national, the fight against it is always more successful if there is better cooperation among the countries involved.”


The seriousness of the situation was underlined by NATO secretary general George Robertson, who told the media, “Either this region takes control of its borders – or the criminals will take control.”


The leaders attending the conference on May 22 and 23 included top officials from Serbia and Montenegro, Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Albania and Bulgaria, and United Nations administrators running Kosovo.


However, Kosovo’s prime minister, Bajram Rexhepi, was not present. The protectorate’s UN administrator Michael Steiner withdrew his invitation after the Albanian-majority Kosovo assembly adopted a pro-independence resolution in defiance of the international community.


The Border Security and Management conference was hosted by the Macedonian government and supported by NATO, the EU, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, and the Stability Pact. The latter’s special coordinator Erhard Busek said, “Given the sensitivity of border issues, it must be seen as a major achievement that the western Balkans are joining forces to deal with the topic."


Inadequate border controls have allowed drug smuggling, gunrunning and human trafficking to flourish, posing not only a threat to the stability of the war-torn region, but also causing problems elsewhere in Europe.


Crime is also holding the Balkan nations back from one of their greatest ambitions – to be reintegrated into the international community by becoming full members of NATO and the EU.


One senior western diplomat, who did not want to be named, told IWPR that the problems had to be tackled before further integration was possible, saying, “Unless open but secure borders are created, the region will continue to face economic stagnation and instability which will leave it outside the European mainstream.”


EU official Reinhard Preibe, who oversees the western Balkans, said, "The ultimate goal is to do two things simultaneously - to make the borders more open for legal trade while closing them for any illegal activities."


The attendance of so many top officials at the conference was seen as a sign of the Balkan states’ determination to tackle these issues head on. “We can confront the [organised] criminals only with a successful coalition of governments,” said Crvenkovski.


These governments have agreed to share information and form joint databases on criminal groups active in the area.


Participants also agreed to put forward an ambitious and detailed plan to increase both prevention and prosecution of cross-border activities linked to organised crime and extremism.


The proposed reforms include computerisation, faster exchange of information, modernisation of border crossings and more sophisticated training for the frontier police who will eventually replace army units on Balkan borders.


The OSCE will provide regional training for the border police units to bring them up to European standards, and an integrated security control system will be installed and operated by specially trained professionals.


NATO has also offered to install a modern communication system between its Kosovo peacekeepers and surrounding countries, which it believes will wipe out any advantage currently held by gangsters using state-of-the-art surveillance and monitoring equipment.


Kosovo is still seen as fertile ground for armed groups because its frontiers are considered porous.


However, Steiner was upbeat, saying, “Just a year ago, the papers were full of stories about instability on our borders. Today we will sign an agreement to open two new crossings between Macedonia and Kosovo. This shows how far we've come.”


Evridika Saskova is a journalist with the Skopje daily Makedonija Denes


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