Balkans Threatened by Mafia-style Conflict

Rooting out corruption and quashing organised crime are crucial to restoring peace and stability to the Balkans

Balkans Threatened by Mafia-style Conflict

Rooting out corruption and quashing organised crime are crucial to restoring peace and stability to the Balkans

Wednesday, 25 April, 2001

The current fighting in the Balkans will escalate. Right now the worst-case scenario is in danger of becoming reality - a mafia-style war over assets under the guise of national struggle. But there is a way to stop it.

For the past ten years, ethnic Albanians in Macedonia have demanded constitutional changes from the government to ensure equal rights and economic opportunities, proportional representation in government institutions, a new census and Albanian language instruction in higher education.

Yet the government coalition - which includes the Democratic Party of Albanians, DPA - has made scant progress during its three years in office.

The National Liberation Army, NLA, composed of former Kosova Liberation Army commanders and hired fighters, sensed their time had come. They took the political process to the battlefield.

Unemployed young men, warriors-for-hire, were keen to rally behind anyone promising to defend their community.

Meanwhile, in the ethnically divided Kosovo city of Mitrovica, ethnic tensions continue to rise. Serb mobs, backed by former paramilitaries, have beaten and killed ethnic Albanians in the north and armed Albanian gangs have murdered Serbs in the south. The Ibar Bridge, which connects the two communities, has been the scene of on-going inter-ethnic clashes.

The simmering conflict in Macedonia and Mitrovica could break out into open warfare. The Serb paramilitary forces in Mitrovica may push for the secession of the now Serb-dominated northern part of the city. In Macedonia, the NLA could take the fighting to the capital Skopje. Both scenarios would lead to more victims, burned villages and endless columns of refugees.

High unemployment and the lure of riches and political favours have created a fertile recruiting ground in the south east Balkans for both militias and organized crime groups. These groups enjoy a web of funding sources.

Most of the money comes from providing illegal goods - drugs, cigarettes and people - with safe passage through the various regional fiefdoms. Additional money comes from the Albanian and Serbian diasporas and governments. In the case of the NLA, $3 million was raised in the past month from the Albanian-American community alone. Belgrade, meanwhile, provides money for Serb radicals in Mitrovica.

Most people cannot survive economically without links to organised crime. With little, if any, prospect for employment or markets to sell their wares, the public is held hostage to multi-million dollar mafia run businesses. Gangsters are increasingly asserting themselves in the region and are poised to extend their influence further into Western Europe.

The West needs a new policy for the region - a policy which simultaneously seeks to put an end to corruption at government level and to address the issues which provide the armed groups with a reason to exist.

Even local journalists know which government officials are on the take and who cooperates with local mafias. The names and contact points of officials and gangster leaders involved in cigarette, drug, petroleum, and migrant smuggling are common knowledge.

The West needs to increase the presence of police and intelligence gathering officials and publicly threaten to cut off aid to governments if they fail to prosecute offenders.

There should be no illusions, however. Corruption will thrive until decisions are made on the status of Kosovo and of the ethnic Albanians in Macedonia.

The first step in Kosovo is to assure the Kosovars that Serbian forces will not return. This includes providing the Pristina-based Albanian leaders with authority over the province.This would in turn make them responsible for the protection of the Serb minority in Kosovo.

In Macedonia, the West must recognise that the demands of the ethnic Albanians are legitimate and assist Skopje in implementing them.

The longer the international community procrastinates, the longer the region will remain in limbo and a haven for mafias and militias.

Fron Nazi is a writer specialising in Balkan affairs.

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