Brussels Fears Serbian Gangsters

The growing power of the Serbian mafia is likely to further damage the region’s EU membership prospects.

Brussels Fears Serbian Gangsters

The growing power of the Serbian mafia is likely to further damage the region’s EU membership prospects.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

The assassination of the Serbian prime minister will have a severe impact on the stability of the Balkans, and further slow its already erratic progress towards European integration.

"This act shows how organised crime and terrorism threatens the entire region," said Mladen Ivanic, Bosnia's foreign minister. "This will, for sure, have repercussions for the [regional] situation.”

There are fears that the assassination of Djindjic could herald the start of a nightmare scenario - that Serbian organised crime networks have become so strong they are moving towards control of power and the gangsterisation of the state itself.

Fear of this scenario is likely to greatly sharpen the newest division of Europe. The iron curtain, dismantled after the collapse of communism in 1989, is now being replaced by a Schengen curtain, sealing off those countries who expect to join the European Union next year from those who will remain outside.

Of the nine post-communist countries scheduled to become members of the EU in May 2004, only Slovenia is a former Yugoslav state. Croatia has applied, with German and Italian support.

But the death of Djindjic will only reinforce the views of the anti-expansionist countries, which regard the Balkans and most former Yugoslav states as liabilities that should, for the moment, be excluded from the European integration project. As Croatian president Stipe Mesic said the killing "certainly isn't good either for the democratic growth of Serbia or for us, living in the neighbourhood."

Djindjic's murder will certainly further delay hopes for eventual Serbian membership of the EU. It will also increase the country's physical isolation from the rest of Europe once neighbouring Hungary joins.

Hungarian security sources say they are concerned about the Serbian authorities' lack of resolve in tackling drug and people-smuggling networks that use Hungary as a transit country to the West.

The Serbian-Hungarian frontier is already in the process of becoming a new frontline in the war against organised crime. The EU and the Budapest authorities have greatly reinforcement the area, deploying new highly-trained personnel and state of the art sensor technology that allows Hungarian border guards to see several km inside Serbian territory.

Under intense pressure from the West, the Djindjic government attempted to break the powerful hold of criminal gangs on Serbia's economy and society. However, their close relationships with some of Serbia's law enforcement agencies appear to have weakened these moves.

The Serbian government has issued an arrest warrant for 200 members of the Zemun clan. It is notable that several of the crimes with which they are accused of stretch back to the Milosevic era, including the kidnapping and disappearance of former Serbian president Ivan Stambolic and the attempted murder of Vuk Draskovic, the leader of the Serbian Renewal Movement.

Although the Balkans and the former Yugoslav states are all now democracies, their weak institutions, ramshackle criminal justice systems and their slow progress towards civil society have greatly aided the expansion of criminal networks. Speaking last November at the London Conference on Organised Crime in South Eastern Europe, Javier Solana, EU representative for foreign and security policy, said that organised crime has put a "genuine predatory system" in place in the Balkans.

"The western Balkans will remain the gateway of organised crime to Europe until the criminal networks are stopped from making their business in our countries," he said.

Solana noted that according to Interpol, organised crime groups from the former Yugoslavia now control the distribution of around 70 per cent of heroin within several European countries, and run networks responsible for the trafficking of 700,000 women for the sex trade - as many as 200,000 are taken to or through the Balkans.

Organised crime is of course not purely a Serbian problem: criminal gangs are active across southern Europe, with networks both recent and historic that reach far into the West and the United States. However, law enforcement agencies, by and large, seek them out and seize their assets.

This is largely not the case in Serbia, mainly because of the peculiar nature of the Milosevic regime from 1991 to 2000, when organised crime and the state co-existed in a symbiotic relationship.

A new political-business-criminal elite emerged, and was allowed to enrich itself, as long as its members stayed loyal. The state customs service organised cigarette and petrol-smuggling syndicates, while paramilitaries working under the direction of the interior ministry looted and ran sanctions-busting operations.

Budimir Babovic, a former head of the Yugoslav Interpol bureau, said, " Under Milosevic the links between crime and politics were very close. He practically constructed his regime on those links. Well-known criminals such as Arkan became parliamentary deputies, but that was not the worst problem.

“As all levels of society became criminalised, public morality was completely destroyed. We had apparent freedom to criticise the government, but when you have no public morality to correct wrongdoings, this freedom is worth nothing."

Adam LeBor is the author of Milosevic: A Biography, published by Bloomsbury UK.

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