Mafia Fuels Balkans Turmoil

Organised crime at every level of Balkan society prevents true entrepreneurship and the emergence of civil society.

Mafia Fuels Balkans Turmoil

Organised crime at every level of Balkan society prevents true entrepreneurship and the emergence of civil society.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

The all-pervasive mafia in the Balkans is impeding nation building by stealing aid, distorting markets and preventing the growth of a strong civil society, argue two American experts.

Speaking on the future of the region at the Wilson Centre in Washington DC on April 9, Louise Shelley, director of the Transnational Crime and Corruption Centre at American University, criticised perceptions of the gangs as "primarily a law enforcement problem that can be solved with strong police and law enforcement".

"This works only if you have rule of law, trust of the government, an independent judiciary and uncorrupt officials," said Shelley. "In the former Yugoslavia you don't have cannot just find the 'Corleone family' and get them. It's not families. It's everywhere, banks, government, many layers of society are implicated and benefit from it."

Christopher Corpora, a Balkans analyst with the US Department of Defence, who also addressed the gathering, said that a history of authoritarian regimes in the Balkans had led to tight informal networks at the grassroots level, some of which had turned to crime, hindering the growth of civil society.

Ultimately, he argued, this requires outside forces to get involved in nation building if the work of peacekeepers is to be of any long-term use, pointing out that, as long ago as 1997, NATO general Wesley Clark argued that organised crime was a threat to the mission in Bosnia.

"Democratisation needs to happen before you can get rule of law and civil society," he said while acknowledging that some in Washington view such involvement with disdain.

An example of the damaging extent of criminal penetration in the region is its reach into the privatisation of industries, such as airlines and telecommunications, which has denied capital to many citizens and stunted small-scale entrepreneurship," said Shelley.

"No middle class can develop because society has been so polarised by the hijacking of the privatisation process, creating enormous economic gaps between the small but immensely affluent elite and the generally poor mass public."

A recent report on Bosnia by the US General Accounting Office called crime and corruption "endemic problems" which "seriously inhibit" both economic and political development and implementation of the Dayton peace agreement. As well as large-scale illicit activities, efforts to rejuvenate the economy of Bosnia were also being obstructed by the siphoning of aid money by corrupt officials and criminal organisations.

Montenegro has no extradition treaty with the West, making it a valuable transport hub for contraband of every kind. In Albania the "rampant levels of crime and corruption" - including large-scale drug and people trafficking - have left most of the population "demoralised and apathetic towards the very concept of democracy", according to the International Crisis Group.

Of Serbia, the Rand Corporation, a prominent Washington think-tank, warns that the police are highly criminalised but that a " purge of the police could lead to a rise in organised crime, with many of those purged finding employment with mafia like groups".

According to Shelley, national borders and ethnic rivalries are not holding back criminal gangs in their quest for even more money - traditional enemies, such as Serbs, Croats and Albanians, cooperate closely in organised crime.

In fact, the region has become "a nexus for domestic and international organised crime groups", Shelley argues, with international groups from Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and Romania all operating on the territory of the former Yugoslavia, dealing in the trafficking of women, migrants and arms.

Corpora also pointed to Balkans geography as a factor. The region boasts over 1000 miles of coast, excellent deepwater ports, large networks of dense forests and mountainous areas ideal for illicit activities.

Shelley argued that local communities, the media and world bodies all had a part to play in tackling problems like the trafficking of women for the sex trade, "You cannot just raid brothels and get the women, who are stranded and have no way of getting home or dealing with the psychological traumas they have suffered.

"The illicit follows the licit, you cannot decouple organised crime from legitimate activity. They are deeply interconnected. The problem is how do you provide growth in the legitimate sector when you cut off the illegitimate sector where there is so much profit to be made. If alternatives to crime are not provided there will be no local support."

Corpora also advocates a grassroots approach, "So far the democratic process has been top down. We need a Western sense of civil society to take root. It is a long-term state building strategy. You cannot take a few weeds out and move on."

Nir Rosen is a Washington-based freelance journalist, specialising in the Balkans

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