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Organized Crime in The Balkans


Organized Crime (OC) is often conceptualized as a business enterprise formed by actors motivated by profit. The United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime does not contain a precise definition of ‘organized crime’ , nor does it list the kinds of crimes that might constitute it. Bundeskriminalamt (BKA) suggests that Organized Crime is «the planned commission of criminal offenses determined by the pursuit of profit and power which, individually or as a whole, are of considerable importance and involve more than two persons, each with his/her own assigned tasks, who collaborate for a prolonged or indefinite period of time : a) by using commercial or business-like structures, b) by using force or other means of intimidation or c) by exerting influence on politics, the media, public administration, judicial authorities or the Business sector». Of course there are many other definitions of OC including more or less the same ideas. In general, OC appears as a parallel society, living out of the legal community, having it’s own regulations, it’s own organization, hierarchy and strong discipline, and highly resolved to use all possible means to reach its goal (i.e. maximum profit). These criminal networks are typically involved in many different types of criminal activity spanning several countries. These activities may include trafficking in humans, illicit goods, weapons, drugs, counterfeiting, money laundering and several types of fraud.

Worldwide there are thousands of criminal groups operating in one or, most usually, many of the previously mentioned crime areas. According to EUROPOL’s Serious and Organized Crime Threat Assessment (SOCTA) there are an estimated 3600 organized crime groups (OCGs) active in the European Union only. These groups are becoming increasingly networked in their organization and behavior and flexible hierarchies. Moreover, there is a wide tendency for groups to cooperate with or incorporate into their membership a greater variety of nationalities. This has resulted in an increasing number of heterogeneous groups that are not defined by nationality or ethnicity.

Organized crime is fundamentally affected by the process of glottalization. Criminals act undeterred by geographic boundaries and can no longer be easily associated with specific regions or centers of gravity. Despite this, ethnic kinship, linguistic and historical ties still remain important factors for building bonds and trust and often determine the composition of the core groups controlling larger and diverse criminal networks.

Recent developments both in the economic and social sphere along with resulting changes in consumer demand have led to shifts in criminal markets. Many OCGs are flexible and adaptive and have identified and exploited new opportunities during the past years. For instance, the ongoing refugee crisis or the reduced consumer spending power has inspired criminals to expand their businesses into new areas and new product lines (i.e. cheaper synthetic drugs, human trafficking). Criminal groups capitalize on new opportunities in order to generate profit, especially when they are able to use existing infrastructures, personnel and contacts. This is particularly true for groups involved in the transportation and distribution of illicit commodities.


The Balkan Region has always been depicted as a rich conglomerate of cultures and religions and as an ethnic conflict zone. Since the fall of communism in 1989 the region has experienced dramatic changes. Despite the efforts by the international community the region has not been fully secured and stabilized.  Kosovo is an international protectorate with an uncertain future, Montenegro became the world’s newest state in 2006, Serbia is in the early stage of political and economic reforms, FYROM is in the process of self- reinvention and Albania is a contested democracy. Greece and Bulgaria on the other hand face significant economic and social issues, not to mention petty and high level corruption. It is then evident that all regional countries face major challenges in establishing the rule of law and dealing with the underlying causes of crime.

The greatest criminal threats in the region are illegal immigration and the trafficking of drugs, weapons and human beings. Corruption is intimately linked to organized crime, which in the most serious cases corrodes the state from within and allows crime to become acceptable and remain unpunished. The post – communist systems of government in the region are characterized by official corruption, incomplete legislation, poor enforcement of existing laws, non – transparent financial institutions, lack of respect for the rule of law, absence of civil society, poorly guarded national borders and lack of political will to establish the rule of law. All these along with unfavorable economic conditions, unemployment, impoverishment and perversion of the system of values have resulted in lack of prospects, especially for younger people. All of these factors fed into the burgeoning underworld. Its activities were greatly enhanced by the outbreak of the civil wars that brought about the fall of Yugoslavia – the fighting in Slovenia and Croatia in 1991, the spillover to Bosnia from 1992 to 1995, the breakdown of authority in Albania in 1997, the outbreak thereafter of combat in Kosovo, followed by ethnic Albanian insurrections in southern Serbia and Macedonia. All contributed to the anarchy in which organized crime flourished .

Organized Crime, according to internal police reports is not a new phenomenon that emerged after the collapse of communism. The regime of Slobodan Milosevic was not only corrupted, autocratic and criminalized; it was a criminal regime whose whole security sector was deeply involved not just in war crimes, but also in classic forms of organized crime : drugs, weapon trafficking, extortion, kidnappings and targeted assassinations. The security systems in other republics replicated this model to various degrees throughout most of the ‘90s. Generally speaking, during communism, organized crime activities were controlled mainly by the communist states.

“One of the reasons our criminal groups became so powerful is that they were organized by the state itself”

                                                                  Bogomil Bonev, former Interior Minister of Bulgaria

During the ‘90s the traditional Balkan route from Turkey via Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, Germany and the Netherlands was disrupted by war. Instead, the drugs moved from Turkey via Bulgaria Romania and Hungary to Slovakia, Czech Republic and Germany or via Hungary to Austria and then to other West European countries. However, after 2000, a southern branch re-emerged, with heroin smuggled from Turkey via Bulgaria and FYROM to Kosovo, Albania, Italy,Austria and then Germany. In addition to these routes, trucks transported on ferries from Turkey to Albania, Croatia and Northern Italy are frequently used to traffic opiates to Western Europe. The role of the Albanian OC groups is formidable over the latest decade. There are at least two big Albanian-run heroin processing facilities in FYROM (Tetovo area) while ethnic Albanian communities in Europe provide street level distribution networks. And this is especially important in Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and Greece, which has absorbed an estimated 300.000 illegal Albanian immigrants.

Since 1991. Some 70% of the heroin reaching Switzerland and Germany is reckoned to have been transported through Albania and/or by Albanian groups and the figure for Greece may be closer to 80% .

Albanian “drug lords” have in addition to work closely with their Macedonian, Serbian and Bulgarian Partners in order to move the shipments toward their western destinations. After heroin enters Kosovo from Bulgaria and Macedonia, it is stored in places like Urosevac (Ferizaj) or Vucitrn (Vushtri), near the Serbian border. Then, after the arrangements are made, large shipments cross into Serbia through the porous stretch of the border near the Serbian town Presevo and from there , there are only 15 km to the international highway that links Athens, Skopje and Belgrade to Western European capitals. What is really helpful for the OC groups operating in this area is the fact that the borders are poorly maintained and often easily bypassed via alternative mountain roads. This applies specifically to Kosovo. Moreover, many borders across the Balkan route cut across closely -knit ethnic communities some of which are traditionally prone to smuggling. (Ethnic Albanians line up the area along Kosovo’s frontiers.)


However, illicit drugs is not the only business that the Albanian OC groups are involved in. 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, along with 38.000 handguns, 25.000 machine-guns, 2.400 anti-tank rocket launchers, 3.500.000 hand grenades and 3.600 tons of explosives. Consequently, a large portion of those arms were sold to criminal groups in the Balkans and in Europe. In addition 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. Albanian arms were sold to the former Rwandan Government Forces in Eastern Zaire through a UK firm, during and after the Rwandan Genocide (1997), to UNITA rebels in Angola (1996 -1999) and IRA in Ireland. There have been also questions about some large official transfers from Bosnia and Herzegovina to Afghanistan and Iraq involving hundreds of thousands of weapons. Recently, media reports suggested that the November 13 Paris attackers used two Zastava M-70 assault rifles from the former Yugoslavia. Moreover , the trails of the weapons used in January’s 2015 attacks on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo also led to the Balkans (Deutsche Welle, 5/12/2015). On April 17 & 19 2016 police from 6 Balkan countries arrested 22 people and seized large quantities of weapons in a coordinated operation supported by EUROPOL and FRONTEX The nationalities of those arrested was not revealed but the sources of the weapons were mostly in Bosnia and Albania. (Reuters, 25/4/2016). The weapon smuggling business, although is usually supplementary to other illicit trafficking operations, has, again, a huge profit margin. While a Kalashnikov (AK-47) in Kosovo costs around 300 -500 €, the price in other countries can come close to 2.000 € per piece. Nils Duquet associate of the Flemish Peace Institute in Brussels, told DW that according to his research , the majority of the illegal weapons in the EU have been smuggled via the Balkan route.

The illegal firearms issue poses a serious threat for security in all Europe while there are concerns about possible links between the weapons trade and terrorist groups. European Union faces a major challenge in dealing with illicit trafficking in firearms, but the consequences of failing to act are even greater . The links between Islamic terrorist cells and organized crime groups in the Balkan region concerns the European Law enforcement authorities. Although they are different types of criminal activities and their actions are driven by different incentives, terrorism and organized crime cannot be examined as isolated and unrelated entities. It is , for instance known, that Al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb uses the heroin trade routes to get an easy access to the Schengen countries. The fighting of the Islamic terrorism and organized crime require from the EU and also NATO the adoption of an effective strategy that would combine counter – terrorism and anti- crime strategies.

Human Trafficking

While drug and weapons trafficking may generate the most profit, international human trafficking draws the most opprobrium for the Balkan Region. In Western Balkans, this activity falls into three sub-categories : trafficking of women, mostly for sexual exploitation; trafficking of men , usually poor migrants for illegal labour markets and trafficking of children, mostly Roma, and engaging them as beggars, thieves and burglars. All these categories were, and still are present in the Western Balkans . Albanian OCG’s are involved in trafficking in human beings, establishing illegal labour and sex markets in destination countries in Central and Western Europe.

In this case though Albania is also the source of human trafficking victims. According to the International Organization for Migration the minimum number of persons trafficked to, through and from Albania that were identified and assisted between January 2000 and April 2003 is 2,460. Recently, FRONTEX, in its annual Risk Analysis Report mentioned that there were 18.000 illegal border -crossings in 2015 by ethnic Albanians and people from the Kosovo territory. This indicates according to the same report an increase by 27%. On the other hand, European Commission suggests that around 120.000 women and children are trafficked through the Balkan route annually. But, like in the drug case Albanian authorities have identified only 95 victims, while the number of suspects prosecuted and convicted for Human trafficking is extremely low Moreover, the government did not fund several NGO shelters that provided services to the victims and that could possibly enlighten the issue of human trafficking, despite the fact that the country’s social services do not have the capacity for this purpose.

At present, the situation of illegal border-crossing by Syrian refugees, seeking European Union countries remains disturbing. Albanian media report almost daily on cases of the detention of these citizens in Gjirokastër and their return to Greece. Arrests by police officers of some Albanian citizens who helped and sheltered migrants for profit purposes indicates that the flow of illegal migrants is not undefended but assisted and instructed about the places where they will cross and the rest during their journey. Yet, systematic and proactive investigations are needed to discover criminal groups involved in this activity.

The profits for Albanian OCGs from the smuggling of human beings are still very high compared to the risks and costs involved. Estimations put the price of illegal transportation towards Central Europe, through Greece and the Balkan route from 2,500 to 6.000 Euros , while for further destinations payments are estimated up to 16.000 Euros per person.

The impact of Organized Crime in the Balkans

The dynamics of the OC in the Western Balkans seems to be large enough to alarm not jut the Balkan region but further beyond in a Pan European and international level. The albanian OCGs constitute one of the most expanding and networked criminal groups in contemporary Europe with vast economic societal and political implications.

A survey in Albania made it clear that relatives only can be trusted. This could easily result in social withdrawal, particularly with regard to commercial transactions. It is no surprise that the European Commission progress report for Albania already since 2005 , reiterated that the rule of law remains weak, with corruption and organized crime

activities considered serious widespread problems threatening the country’s stability, security and socio-economic development. The citizens do not respect and do not trust the Police and Justice System while grey areas along the borderlines are entirely controlled by OCGs.

In the sphere of economy, according to Transparency International, in Albania, there is an 80% of parallel economy, meaning that for every 100 Euros of documented capital, another 80 Euros are never accounted for, most of it from organized crime activities. According to Albanian economic reviews from 2003-2007, legal investments average some 200 million Euros, while illegal invested funds are in excess of 1 Billion Euros. Moreover , the narcotics, weapons or human trade nonetheless uses respectable banks to launder large amounts of dirty money. While comfortably removed from the smuggling operations per se, powerful banking interests in Turkey but mainly those in financial centers in Western Europe discretely collect fat commissions in a multibillion dollar laundering operation. These interests have high stakes in ensuring a safe passage of drug shipments into Western European Markets, and indicate that the consequences of the Organized Crime in the Balkan region are not restrained in its tight geographical borders. It is also expected that organized crime and corruption is a huge obstacle for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI).



The most critical question regarding OC in Albania and the Western Balkans in general is how this phenomenon can be restrained and addressed . The three main sectors of crime activities – trafficking in drugs, human beings and weapons- are intertwined, and embedded in the pervasive culture of corruption in the region. Unhindered by ethnic prejudices, political differences and lengthily bureaucratic procedures, they cooperate on the regional and international level much more effectively than the governments and international organizations which are trying to suppress them. And although OC in the Western Balkans is by now widely recognized as the main threat against stability in the region and in Europe, there is still no comprehensive strategy to address the problem,neither locally, nor in the EU.

On the regional level the main obstacle in fighting OC is the unreformed, poor and often dysfunctional security and judicial system, especially in Albania and Kosovo.On the international level, there are some noble efforts, particularly SECI which is now linked with EUROPOL. The other regional insurgents for fighting OC in the region, SPOC and SPAI are mostly dormant.

Clearly, the EU and other members of international community need to engage much more actively in suppressing Balkan networks of Organized crime. Besides the obvious reason, which is that most of the “goods” that are trafficked – drugs, weapons and illegal aliens- end up on the EU soil, there are a few others. Firstly, Albanian OCGs are deeply rooted in Europe and the best way to eliminate the problem is by addressing it at the source and secondly, the containment of the OC in the region would improve the economy and contribute to the overall political stability which could someday lead to the accession of Western Balkan countries in the European Union.

Author: Touvlatzis Vasilis, iPEBP Team


Eurasia News Online

International News Online

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. ipebp

    Thank you for rebloging our article and for mentioning our teams author, but please cite our blog if you want to republish our articles.

  2. mohandeer

    Reblogged this on Worldtruth and commented:
    A really fascinating and well informed read. Many thanks to the authour and Eurasia News Online.

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