(RIEAS Junior Analyst, Editor – Southeastern Europe at the World Security Foundation)
Since the end of the Communist era in the Balkans in the early 90’s, organized crime activities have soared, by expanding their activities in fields such as narcotics, trafficking, racketeering and goods smuggling. The civil wars in Yugoslavia and the continuous strife in Albania provided an excellent framework on which crime syndicates became stronger and gained political and societal clout.
The first and foremost criminal group that can be to an extent classified as a “Mafia” is the Albanian organized crime (1). Its geographical spread is in and between the triangle Pristina (Kosovo) – Tetovo (FYROM) and Tirana (Albania). During the 1999 and the NATO campaign against Serbia, it was a common secret amongst the members of the international community that the KLA army was financed and assisted by the organized crime that hoped to achieve a safe haven in the Kosovo area (2). The importance of Pristina is mainly associated with its use as a transit point in the infamous Balkan drugs route. Moreover the capital of Kosovo is a massive hideout for heads of crime syndicates across the Balkans and beyond (3).
Furthermore the high unemployment rate in the region along with the chronic industrial decay, have forced masses of the population to remain tolerant –at beast- in the practices of illegal activity (4). The capital flowing from heroin trade mostly, have helped towards the revitalization of the local economies. To that point it is interesting to note that 4/5 of the heroin flowing to Europe from Asia (Afghanistan) is being transferred by Albanians that have established bases all across Europe from Oslo to Barcelona and from Budapest to Rome (5). The Albanian organized crime as Xavier Raufer has pointed out operates on a dual basis (6). That means it has also the function of a strong societal force that virtually governs peripheral areas of Albania, mostly in the North, as well as, Kosovo currently. The Albanian crime syndicates work in close contacts with their American-Albanian counterparts that are mainly located in New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia (7). Since 1991 quite a few Kosovo-Albanians have managed under not-so-legal ways, to immigrate to USA and act as liaison with the European community.
This highly sophisticated criminal network has been able to control much of the drugs trade in Europe and also the trafficking of women and children from the Balkans to Western Europe. Both of these activities are complementary to each other and frequently criminal groups switch from one activity to the other (8).
The ethnic conflicts in Former Yugoslavia, provided ample opportunities for weapons smuggling that reached unprecedented proportions in 1997. The same year a civil unrest in Albania, led to the overthrow of the government and the lack of the rule of law for almost 6 months. During this period 700,000 Kalashnikov and about 200,000 Albanian passports were stolen (9). Consequently a large portion of the above was sold to criminal groups in the Balkans and in Europe, whilst there are many allegations of terrorist connection whereby Al Qaeda members were able to obtain Albanian passports and an easier access to the European Continent (10).
The Kosovo experience has been up to date, a great disappointment for the international community. The UN administered territory has not been able to withstand the all-pervading influence of the organized crime. Despite numerous acts of violence and a very high homicide rate; very few convictions have been handed out to culprits, none of those was a member of the organized crime either. Nowadays the existence of regular heroin supply from Afghanistan, and the control by the “Albanian Mafia” of the Balkan route (11), has enabled it to obtain a large capital base that is laundered mainly though the construction centre in Albania and the use of offshore financial centers. Actually the largest enterprise in terms of sales and profits in South Eastern Europe is the Albanian organized crime (12).
In another Southern Balkan country-Bulgaria-, organized crime activities have caused great strain in the country’s political and social life (13). With Bulgaria’s imminent entrance in the EU in 1/1/2007, the state is facing European pressure in order to curb the spread of illegal activities of organized form. Between 2003 and 2005 as much as 50 homicides of heads of the underworld has been recorded in Bulgaria, one of the most notorious “Mafia wars” in European history, save Southern Italy. The aforementioned situation has given the opportunity to radical political forces such as the Bulgarian political party “Ataka” to gain as much as 8% in the country’s last general elections (14). Therefore the activities of the crime syndicates most surely have political ramifications and will tend to enact a reactionary response by the electoral that feels agrevetated by the incompetence of the central government to crack down the illegal groups. The European Union from its point of view has continuously advocated against organized crime, with little effect though. Its actions are mostly in the rhetorical level and the Union fails to grasp the interrelation of organized crime with the domestic political life and society. Moreover the existence of terrorist cells in the Southern Balkans is also connected with the organized crime, since the profits of the latter help sustain the former.
In the case of Greece, there is not a national organized crime network that can be classified as a national mafia one. Nevertheless the perils of Balkan crime have surely affected the country in numerous ways. Apart form the current crime statistics –that show a stronger pervasion of organized crime related activities- money laundering is a present and clear danger. The spread of the Greek banking system in S.E Europe (15) will certainly address in the near future the issue of capital transfer of criminal activities through those financial institutions.
Also the interstate relations between Greece and the other Balkan states should always take into consideration the influence of organized groups that are the 21st century non state actors. For that reason it is of outermost importance to construct in the Greek territory “An observatory of organized crime” that will act as a counselor for the Greek government-Perhaps for the EU as well- and will be compromised by experienced analysts, law enforcement agents, criminologists and international relations experts. The use of this foundation or institute would be to detect, collect, analyze relevant Balkan crime information and produce consultation. In essence an intelligence unit that will be able to predict future trends in organized activities.
In parallel as Dr. John Nomikos –RIEAS Director-has recently stated in an interview in www.balkanalysis.com (16); an OSINT Centre in the Balkans would be of much use regarding the reveal and confrontation of transnational threats such as the spread of WMD, terrorism, and ethnic conflicts.
A multiparty approach to organized crime should be form here upon the core of any intelligence activity in the Balkans. Organized crime –Along with the rest of the perils for modern societies- need measures that are up to the modern way of life and communication of ours. A parallel and well constructed method of Open Source Intelligence gathering and the operation of specialized crime intelligence units will certainly help towards the aim of curbing crime and its calamities.
FBI Congressional testimony
An interview of Mark Edmond Clark in CIAO
A report by Balkan Peace Organization on Kosovo organized crime.
Reports on Kosovo by the Global Policy Forum
5) Gus Xhudo. (1996) "Men of Purpose: The Growth of Albanian Criminal Activity." Transnational Organized Crime. 2(1). Spring: 1-20
A website of Xavier Raufer with detailed analysis on the issue
An outlook of the Albanian Mafia
Reports of the State Department on trafficking
Timeline of Albanian history
A report by Interpol
An appraisal of the Albanian organized crime
An analysis on Bulgarian organized crime activities
14) http://www.robert-schuman.org/anglais/oee/bulgarie/presidentielle/default2.htm A report by Robert Schuman Centre on Bulgarian elections
An article by Business Week on the Greek banking system in the Balkans
Interview of Dr. John Nomikos by www.balkanalysis.com