29 July 2019

Organized crime, a “hard” challenge against Western Balkans’ “soft” security

Stelian Teodorescu

Western Balkans’ geographic position, a region that’s placed between Europe’s Eastern and Western important actors, but also at their competitive interests’ borders, was considered by some experts as a favorable region and by others as risks and threats’ trigger.

Image source: Mediafax

That is why the region has strategic importance, which did not, however, led to its expected development. Following region’s recent history we can see that it has, in fact, become a perfect area for organized crimes[1], such as illegal trade, including drug, arms and human beings trafficking, illegal migration, and smuggling various licit goods, cigarettes and petroleum products.

After Yugoslavia’s war end, there were small chances for another large scale conflict to emerge, especially if we consider the presence of NATO and EU military forces’ presence with various missions - KFOR in Kosovo, EUFOR in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BIH). We can hardly imagine a potential conflict between this region’s entities, because non-military challenges are more present and threatening for the Western Balkans.

After closely analyzing Western Balkans’ current and possible challenges, one can certainly say that the most significant challenges come from illegal migration and refugees, terrorism, arms, drugs, trafficking human, high-level corruption and, according to security studies, are all part of the organized crime category or, in other words, are non-traditional security challenges. Given that history is a cyclical process, Western Balkan states’ traditional security challenges, which are based on geopolitical, political, economic, ethnic, cultural, religious, etc. factors, are constantly accompanied and even overcome by non-traditional challenges, generating similar risks and threats against region’s security. One of Western Balkans most important challenges is organized crime.

Western Balkans between “hard” and “soft” security

Security is both a complex and multidimensional concept, researchers in this field defining "hard security" as an a priori military security (defined through military power), while "soft security" involves threats against non-traditional states.

Western Balkans countries are a relatively heterogeneous group, especially in terms of their progress in consolidating democracy, economic development and strengthening the rule of law within their societies. It is right that their main objective, in the short term, is joining EU or, as the case may be, the North Atlantic Alliance, this being the main driving force for implementing the necessary political, military, economic and social reforms and transformations (in most cases directly related to the fulfillment of standards). In fact, EU or NATO integration is considered as an option and, at the same time, as real solutions for all these Western Balkans entities, and a possible failure for some of them could create a so-called "security vacuum" in the region.

We must not forget that NATO is mostly focusing on "hard security", particularly addressing military issues, and EU on "soft security". Analyzing region’s developments’ dynamic, we can state that it has become clear that, since 1999, "hard security" challenges have been quickly replaced by "soft security" ones.

 This is also highlighted by Western Balkans’ entities, which have their own national security strategies by which are defining the challenges, starting from a national, regional up to an international level. Thus, the document "The concept of national security and defense in Macedonia" states that the main national threats are: terrorism, organized crime, illegal migration, corruption, trafficking in human beings, drugs and weapons.

Another example is the "National Security Strategy for Montenegro", which lists almost the same challenges that the Montenegrin state faces: drugs and arms traffic, illegal migration, human traffic, etc.

 As for the " Albania’s National Strategy", threats are divided into internal and external threats, including nationalism and ethnic conflicts, terrorism, illegal trafficking, global environmental pollution, diseases, etc.

 In 2014, it was created the document "Analysis of Kosovo’s Security Sector Strategic Review ", which, like most documents in region’s countries, materializes the different treatment of national, regional and global security challenges, with significant resemblance and focus on organized crime.

It can be concluded that the greatest number of threats these entities are facing comes from non-traditional security sector. This highlights these entities’ weak consolidation, which leads to them being called "weak states", and the Western Balkans region being seen as having a significant number of vulnerabilities that are being exploited by organized crime groups.

Western Balkans, a favorable environment for organized crime activities[2]

Organized crimes activities are some of the most important security challenges Western Balkan countries are facing today. The end of armed conflicts and the beginning of the transition from a communist system to democracy, without forgetting 1990s’ economic sanctions consequences, in the post-conflict context, led to the emergence of a favorable environment and more opportunities for carrying out organized crime activities. This phenomenon can be the consequence of a post-communist transition rather than an endemic one. However, it is necessary to emphasize that region’s organized crime development also comes from circumstantial social factors, as well as state institutions’ weaknesses, as organized crime has enough room for maneuver in this area, mainly for human trafficking, drugs and weapons, economic crime, money laundering, etc.  

According to recent threat assessments in Europe, organized crime is increasing. The number of identified groups is growing rapidly. From 2012 to 2017, their number increased from 3,600 to more than 5,000, hence an almost 40% increase. According to Jari Liukku, the head of the European Center for Europol organized crime, this trend remains positive, organized crime being a very serious threat - and evolving rapidly – against Europe’s security.

Europol annually assesses the threats created by organized crime databases received from member states' law enforcement authorities using Europol and other EU agencies’ databases. Proceeds from organized crime activities are reaching the amount of € 110 billion annually.

In Europe, there were identified mainly East-European organized crime groups, Albanian and Italian, as well as other traditional criminal groups. Also according to Jari Liukku, "other active groups throughout Europe include Western Balkans’ criminal groups, Asia and Africa, and a street group that could operate in a very limited area", and "these groups are often extremely well organized and tend to focus on several types of crime, their goal being to generate as much financial gain as possible and to use society’s structures to fulfill their own goals."

Therefore, Finnish police commissioner Seppo Kolehmainen underlined the importance of cooperation in organized crime activities’ prevention. He pointed out that the most effective way for preventing serious crime is co-operation with several authorities in the field, including the private sector, as an effective cooperation needs an effective and timely information exchange.

This is urgent for a region like the Western Balkans, milled by ethnic conflicts and where organized crime does not follow area’s entities’ boundaries and cannot reason the committed crimes to have any ethnic, religious or any other type of motivation. On the contrary, such differences do not stop criminal groups from cooperating with other groups that probably come from an entity, ethnicity, or religion that they have been violently confronted with 20-25 years ago.

The most surprising thing about organized crime in the Western Balkans is its transnational character, bringing together different structures across the region without considering their nationality, ethnic, religious, or other identity. As demonstrated by regional or global reality, developing countries, in general, proved to be particularly vulnerable to being occupied by transnational organized crime groups. Their involvement in such states is increasing, which leads to a weaker governance consolidation in many of these states.

In vulnerable states, corrupt officials become "blind" and avoid reacting to organized crime groups’ actions, such groups interfering in political processes under different ways. This is often done through corruption, the elaboration and development of illegal economic activities, infiltration into economic and financial sectors and security through coercion or corruption and the misguidance of the idea that there are always alternatives within the governance process.

These networks can frequently threaten the stability and markets, by building alliances with political leaders, financial institutions, law enforcement agencies and intelligence and security agencies. The entrance of organized crimes elements into the government undermines the rule of law, the judicial systems, the functioning of free press, the process of building democratic institutions and showing transparency.

Given the context, corruption is an endemic problem in the Western Balkans region, a phenomenon that creates many opportunities for organized crime. In a study made by Transparency International, the Annual Report on Corruption, in 183 surveyed countries, Western Balkan countries are somewhere in the middle of the rating. Croatia and Montenegro have the best positions, which is somewhere on the 66th place, while Kosovo ranks 112, being considered the state to have the highest corruption rate in the region.

It has become clear that only those entities with strong state mechanisms that do not undermine their citizens’ rights, which have internal stability and constitutional democracy are considered "powerful states" and are, therefore, considered to be the main security "providers" and not only security "consumers". State mechanisms’ vulnerability is, nowadays, the key factor that generates weakness, instability, insecurity and opportunities for the development of crime activity organized at national, regional and international level.

Western Balkans’ region developments’ dynamic, called by some “Europe’s periphery” or even the "periphery’s periphery", is an important argument for Europe to stop being indifferent. The Western Balkans are a channel for various threats and challenges coming from other regions of the world, such as the Middle East, like:

• Illegal immigration: After EU has liberated the visas for Western Balkans citizens, immigrants tended to leave region’s poorer areas to seek better living conditions in EU member states. The risks can be managed by Western Balkan entities so that their level to be bellow border control structures’ capacity to ban illegal migrants, possible terrorists or drugs or weapons dealers.

• Drug and arms trafficking: Drug and arms trafficking routes and many vulnerabilities that are creating opportunities for these activities in the Western Balkans are a concern for all governments in the region. Prepared structures cannot but accept the challenge of eliminating drug and weapon trafficking through operational and preventive strategies, in cooperation with EU or other international structures;

• Money laundering: Organized crimes’ groups purpose is getting as much financial resources as possible, but, at the same time, they aim at putting them in various locations and banks, to hide it. Money laundering involves concealing illicit profits’ source and can be done through a specific process, although money laundering patterns differ from one to another: licit earnings are placed within the official banking sector; illicit proceeds are redistributed through a series of accounts in small amounts, to hide the source of their source and the illicit proceeds that become licit are used to acquire properties, shares and bonds, so that they can be legally put in bank accounts.

Hence, given Western Balkans’ evolutions, this is the region which has the most difficulties in fighting serious organized crime activities.

The fight against Western Balkans’ organized crime, the main objective of the international community
In a world wherein modern organized crime requires a higher coordination and effective approach to fight it, there were identified many gaps within the regional co-operation mechanisms, as well as a lack of a common direction and regional coordination.

 In 2015, it was launched the Western Balkan Terrorism Initiative (WBCTi), aiming at getting a common and coordinated regional cooperation approach. Hence, in the Western Balkans, this WBCTi initiative was extended to two other home security areas, being launched the Western Balkans Counter-Serious Crime Initiative and the Western Balkans Border Security Initiative, under the aegis of the Integrative Internal Security Governance.

Hereof, in the last few years, entities in the Western Balkans have shown strong commitment to fighting organized crime. Most of them have ratified international conventions on countering organized crime, such as the UN Convention of Palermo and Mérida (against organized transnational crime and corruption) and the Convention on laundering, search, seizure and confiscation of incomes from organized crime activities.

In order to consolidate the fight against organized crime and corruption, most countries have developed police structures, have reformed the judiciary system, have introduced new investigation methods or new special measures and implemented rules on the confiscation of illegal incomes. To that end, Albania, Serbia and Northern Macedonia have reformed the confiscation laws to make them more effective.

It is noteworthy that there were also international organized crime combat efforts developed. Within the London Summit, from July 2018, dedicated to the Berlin Process, EU and UK showed support for the Western Balkans, both for increasing the security and investment levels and for fighting organized crime. Another example is the Center for International Legal Cooperation (CILC)[3], which, following its involvement in the fight against organized crime, through the IPA2010 regional project in the Western Balkans, " Fighting organized crime and corruption: strengthening Western Balkans Prosecutors’ Network "and IPA2014 “International criminal justice: Western Balkans’ prosecutors network" stays committed to its way. Starting with January 1st, 2018, CILC joined the German Development Cooperation (GIZ) and the Italian Home Affairs Ministry under IPA2017, "Countering serious crime in the Western Balkans". This € 13 million project is funded by the European Commission and the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Another project, initiated for the fight against organized crime, wherefore was allocated around 2 million euro, launched under the auspices of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC)[4], for the period April 2016 - March 2017, was entitled "Measuring and Assessing Organized Crime in the Western Balkans: Supporting Evidence-Based Policy", its overall objective being to strengthen the rule of law by fighting organized crime in beneficiary countries and territories, by improving knowledge of organized crime trends and patterns. The main objective is developing and implementing a framework for the quantification and analysis of organized crime in the Western Balkans and set up mechanisms to track and develop an evidence-based analytical report on organized crime in the Western Balkans.

 As the EU membership seems to be the only major unifying factor in the Western Balkans, this is a powerful lever for the implementation of necessary reforms. It has become very clear that EU must lead region’s integration process hostilities and define precisely the used objectives and means. Experts are already discussing the fact that EU and its allies must launch an offensive against organized crime in the Western Balkans, while simultaneously addressing three fronts:

• Western Balkan countries need to be strongly encouraged and supported to make profound security reforms and to make them more efficient, responsible and uncorrupt. Law enforcement units and structures fighting organized crime must have enough human, material and financial resources to be able to achieve their goals in the best way possible and without political interference;

• security reforms need to be accompanied by judiciary reforms that also need to be effective, independent and harmonized at regional level as well as with EU laws and principles;

• Regional bodies for combating organized crime must be reformed. Given that, now, transnational security challenges and threats are transnational, the reaction against them should be based on joint and intergovernmental efforts.

Currently, Western Balkans entities are experiencing limited institutional abilities, influencing their potential to cope with the non-traditional security challenges of organized crime. This is why regional cooperation’s development, in terms of security and especially within justice and home affairs fields, is considered to be an essential condition for properly responding to threats, such as those generated by organized crime.

In the Western Balkans, drugs, illegal migration and trafficking, arms trafficking, money laundering and terrorists are traditional allies which are acting commonly and are engaged in planning strategies to affect region’s stability and security. This is region’s main vulnerability. While in the Western Balkans, ordinary crimes have decreased as number and intensity, organized crime has an ascending trend. Corruption is definitely intensifying this trend, especially in this region, wherein ethnic wars were particularly violent.

Terrorists have a political agenda that often proves to be extremely ambitious, enjoying various alliances at regional or global level, with sympathizers and accomplices spread all over the world, including in Western Balkans’ organized crime groups.

 Organized crime networks "are reinventing" themselves, running impressive amounts, enjoying sophisticated operational resources and systems and using the scourge of corruption, are trying to induce the perception of legality, sometimes actually getting to influence very high decision-makers, so the challenge will become a major one for the whole area of ​​the Western Balkans.

Translated by Andreea Soare

[1] In UN’s Framework Convention against Organized Crime, art. 1 mentions: For the purposes of this Convention, "organized crime" means refers to the activities of a group of three or more people, with hierarchical or personal relationships, that allow their leaders make profits or control internal or foreigners territories or markets, through violence, intimidation or corruption, both to support criminal activity and to infiltrate the legitimate economy, in particular by: (a) illicit drug or psychotropic drug trafficking and money laundering, as defined in the United Nations Convention from 19 December 1988 - VIENNA, against Illicit Trafficking in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances; (b) human trafficking, as defined in the Convention for the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Other Persons Prostitution Exploitation, from 2 December 1949; (c) currency counterfeiting, as defined in the International Convention for the Suppression of Counterfeit Currency, from 20 April 1929; (d) illicit trafficking or theft of cultural objects as defined by UNESCO’s Convention on the Prohibition and Prevention of Importation, Export and Transfer of Rights to Cultural Property, from 14 November 1970 and the UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen Cultural Objects or Illegally Exported, from 24 June 1995; (e) Theft of nuclear materials, their improper use or threat or their use against the public, as defined by the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, from 3 March 1980; (f) terrorist acts; (g) illicit trafficking or theft of motor vehicles; (h) public officials.Corruption.

[2] Organized crime refers to transnational or local groups involved in different criminal activities, developed for financial purposes.

[3] The Center for International Legal Cooperation (CILC) promotes the rule of law by initiating and implementing international judicial cooperation projects. It brings together legal experts from different countries to find solutions to a variety of challenges within the developing legal systems. The headquarters of this organization are in Hague, and its work spans tens of developing and transition countries in Africa, Asia, Central and Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

[4] UNDOC is a liaison office for the European Union and its institutions, based in Brussels. Bureau‘s aim is to promote policy exchange and operational partnership with EU institutions to jointly promote the Global Agenda on the rule of law, governance and public health. The Bureau also seeks to increase understanding of UNDOC’s mandate areas and its work and to promote it, within the European Union, in front of think tanks in Brussels, NGOs and the general public, through supportive activities and informative events.