Several developments and incidents are bringing again to the analysts’ attention the area in the Balkan Peninsula traditionally known as “the Balkan Route”.
In this geopolitical region of Southeast Europe, an area of 550,000 km², about 55 million people live together, with different identities, and sometimes in adversarial ethnic, cultural and political relations.
After the end of the ethnic conflicts of the twentieth century, despite successes that have been achieved, there are still obstacles to the functioning of the rule of law and the development of a democratic life, mainly generated by organized crime and corruption.
Recent developments
a) Illegal migration
In its most recent annual report, the EU border agency Frontex said that although an “effective closure of the Balkan route” had been achieved in spring 2016 for the illegal migration from the Middle East through Turkey, it did not stop migration completely. Hundreds of refugees still arrive in Central Europe via the old route of Macedonia and Serbia, or from Turkey via Bulgaria and Serbia. The Balkan Route only has become more difficult, more expensive and more dangerous.
The Balkan route, which took migrants out of Greece through Macedonia and Serbia (both non-EU countries) and smuggled them into Hungary, was also considered closed after the Budapest government decided to build a border wall with Serbia and increased other security measures.
– According to a report issued last June by the German Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, the EU-Turkey deal, which in theory closed the Western Balkans Route in 2016, only diverted the migrants’ route, with the southern entry point shifting from the Greek islands to Bulgaria’s land border with Turkey. With the Western Balkans route, migrants got stranded in Serbia, while with the diverted route, they remain stranded in Bulgaria, as all the countries further west are securing their borders and pushing back the refugees. Apart from Greece, as of the end of 2016, Serbia and Bulgaria were the countries with the highest number of stranded asylum seekers: 6,232 in Serbia and 5,534 in Bulgaria.
– The so-called “northern part” of the Balkan Route is also seen as being “tested” by the people smugglers by the experts who analyzed several recent incidents on the Black Sea coast.
About 500 migrants from the Middle East reached Romania across the Black Sea from Turkey during August-September 2017 – a sharp increase from a total of 500 migrants who completed the same route in two years in 2013-2015, according to Romanian data – and seven people smugglers from Turkey, Bulgaria, Syria, Iraq and Cyprus had been arrested. A total of 2,474 people were detained while trying to cross the Romanian border illegally during the first six months of 2017, compared to only 1,624 migrants in 2016.
According to the EU’s border agency Frontex, it is too early to talk about the opening of a new migratory route (the Black Sea route was last active in 2014) due to the difficult sailing conditions on the Black Sea, especially during autumn and winter conditions.
– Concerns about the Balkan Route were recently expressed by Austrian Defense Minister Hans Peter Doskozil who, in an interview with the German newspaper Die Welt, on 20 September 2017, said that people smugglers are finding new routes across the Balkans to illegally bring migrants and refugees into the EU and considered that “the Balkan route is still not entirely closed.”
According to Hans Peter Doskozil, out of the approx 20,000 refugees that came to Austria this year (from which more than 12,000 asked for asylum) about 8,000 persons came through the Balkan route. Due to Hungary and Macedonia controlling their borders, refugees are now taking the path through Romania and Bulgaria, and using the route across Slovakia to go further north.
Doskozil also stressed that Frontex cannot secure the European exterior borders in the way it is needed, and Austria has responded by using police and military forces to carry out “covert” border checks.
b) Organized crime
– U.S. ambassador in Albania Donald Lu[1] considers that fighting organized crime and corruption is the biggest and most difficult challenge ahead for the country, which officially became an EU candidate in 2014 and hopes to begin accession talks. Citing U.S. reports, Lu described Albania as a center of organized crime activity, which includes trafficking in drugs, weapons and prostitution, where four major clans controlled 20 families involved in a wide range of criminal activities.
Ambassador Lu also said that Albania has a substantial black market for smuggled goods, primarily tobacco, jewelry, stolen cars and mobile phones and the country remains at significant risk for money laundering because of rampant corruption and a weak legal system.
– In the domain of drug trafficking, the Balkan route, which stretches from Afghanistan through Iran, Turkey and south-eastern Europe to markets in Western and Central Europe, is still used for carrying the biggest part of the Afghanistan opium (approximately 70 percent of the world’s opium production). The heroin trade has an estimated monetary value of US$28 billion each year.
– A recent investigation[2] by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) revealed that the Balkan Route is also used “in reverse”, this time by some U.S. military contractors. The investigation revealed that the Pentagon may have relied on some companies linked to organized crime in the Balkans area to supply up to US$ 2.2 billion worth of Soviet-style arms and ammunition to Syrian rebels fighting Daesh (the Islamic State – ISIS). The munitions are being transported by both sea and air from Europe to Turkey, Jordan and Kuwait.
Reporters have found that directors of three contractors and the president of a critical sub-contractor have faced serious questions about their integrity, including one who bragged about paying “commissions” to foreign agents to secure deals. Another subcontractor employed a company with links to organized crime.
A long history of trafficking
Unlike other European peninsular regions (such as Iberia or Italy), the northern boundary of the Balkans is not marked by mountain ranges that separate the peninsula from the heartland of Europe. That boundary, along the accessible Sava and Danube rivers, is open and crossed by several key transit corridors connecting Central and Western Europe with the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean. Poor in energy and natural resources, the region is significant mainly because of its location as a hub of pan-European corridors.
Since, historically, the Balkans served as a bridge between Europe and Asia, the area was always used by criminal groups as a transit country for trafficking and smuggling various goods to Europe. There has always been smuggling and banditry in the Balkans, often celebrated in song and legend, as in the tales of the Hajduks, (Robin Hood-style brigands).
Many borders along the Balkan route cut across closely-knit ethnic communities, some of which are traditionally prone to smuggling. The border crossings are poorly maintained, and often bypassed via “alternative” mountain roads. This especially applies to Kosovo, which has porous borders with Macedonia, Albania, and Serbia, with ethnic Albanians lining up the area along Kosovo’s frontiers. Although Kosovo is somewhat off the traditional Balkan route, it is an ideal storage site for heroin smuggled from Macedonia or Albania, which can be re-packed and sent westwards through Serbia or Montenegro. That and the presence of large ethnic Albanian Diaspora in Turkey, Austria, Germany, and Switzerland allowed ethnic Albanian rings to emerge as the dominant force in European drugs trafficking and distribution.
Despite these activities having taken place for centuries, the phenomenon of organized crime in the Balkans has only become alarming during the last decades of the twentieth century. The fact that, during the late ‘970s, the Yugoslav legislation for the movement of persons and goods was more liberal than in the rest of the communist countries, also resulted in the Balkan Route being more easily used for trafficking and smuggling various goods to Europe and vice versa.
The economic crisis of the early ‘980s that gripped the former Yugoslavia and other countries of Eastern Europe, followed by economic sanctions and various political conflicts, provided optimal conditions for the emergence of organized crime in the Balkans. Social factors, as well as legal and institutional vacuums also contributed to the rapid development of organized crime in the area.
Organized crime 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 Bosnian war 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.
In the 21st century, organized crime in the Balkans managed to compel the myriad, rival ethnic groups of the region to work together for a common purpose, namely profit. In times of widespread poverty, of physical and social ruins left by civil wars and weak central governments, the criminal empire has risen to become the largest industry in the region. It is regulated not by traditional power structures, but by multiethnic networks of bosses, transporters, dealers, and enforcers. Its tools are cell-phones, big trucks, vans, buses, fast cars, and boats. The grease for its machinery consists of bribes. Organized crime depends on willing partners in the police, customs, border guards, judiciary and, ultimately, the political class.
The route and its ramifications
The Balkan Route began to be used during the ‘970s as one of the main routes for drug trafficking from Turkey and other Asian countries to Europe. Due to the geopolitical advantages of the Balkans, in ten years this route had become one of the most important venues for human trafficking and drugs smuggling to Europe.
The Balkan Route was divided by the researchers and the law enforcement agencies into three sub-routes: the “Classic Route,” which begins in Turkey and goes through Bulgaria, Macedonia, Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia, towards the European Union; the “Northern Route”, which also begins in Turkey and goes through the Black Sea and Ukraine or Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, towards Austria and Slovakia; and the “Southern Route”, passing through Greece, Macedonia and Albania to Italy.
During much of the ‘990s, the traditional Balkan drug route from Turkey via Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, Germany and the Netherlands was disrupted by war, although occasional transports of opiates were sometimes intercepted. Instead, the drugs moved from Turkey via Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary to Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Germany and the Netherlands, or via Hungary and/or Slovakia to Austria and then to Germany and the Netherlands. After 2000, a southern branch re-emerged, with heroin smuggled from Turkey via Bulgaria and the Macedonia (FYROM) to Albania, Italy, Austria and Germany. In addition, trucks transported on ferries from Turkey to Albania, Croatia, Slovenia and northern Italy (Trieste) were frequently used to traffic opiates to Western Europe, often transiting Austria and Germany.
At the beginning of the ‘2000s, the DEA estimated that despite costly attempts to curb opium poppy growing in Afghanistan in 2002, production was up, providing the base for 4-6 tons of heroin a month, refined and transported from Turkey along Balkan routes to markets in Western and Northern Europe, and the value of the drug traffic of Albanian gangs in Europe alone was estimated at $2 billion. The International Organization for Migration and other international agencies also estimated that as many as 200000 women were lured, bought and enslaved annually for the sex traffic in the Balkans, or transported further north and west.
The massive financial benefit of the drug trade led to an increasing number of crimes and raised the level of corruption in several Balkan countries. Officials of these countries, disappointed by the communist ideology and demoralized by their low salary, were merely concentrating on their own rapid and illegal financial advancement. Thus, through corruption, illegal contacts and networks were created between government officials, mainly from customs services, the police, the tax administration and the health care and education system on the one hand and criminal structures on the other hand, a phenomenon that contributed to the development of organized crime in the Balkans.
In the same period, the involvement of corrupt government officials in protecting and fostering Balkan criminal enterprises has become manifest. In Montenegro, the former president and Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic was under investigation by a court in Bari, Italy, for involvement in massive cigarette smuggling across the Adriatic, and Serbian former prime minister Zoran Djindjic has been implicated in a related operation. In autumn 2002, an international sweep of sex trafficking operations had to be virtually aborted in Bosnia-Herzegovina when authorities learned that half a dozen Bosnian police officers were themselves patrons and protectors of brothels.
Human trafficking
In the case of human trafficking, at the beginning the Balkan route was used mainly for the smuggling of women, mostly for sexual exploitation; trafficking of men, usually poor migrants, for illegal labor markets; and trafficking of children, mostly Roma, and engaging them as beggars, thieves, and burglars. The majority of victims of trafficking were of the average age of 14 up to 32 years and they originated mainly from rural or poor urban areas.
The main routes towards economically and socially well-off countries of Western Europe were the following: (1) via Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and partially Slovenia to Italy or Austria; (2) from Moldova, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro to Albania, and across the Adriatic Sea into Italy; (3) from Romania, Bulgaria and Albania (through FYROM/Macedonia) to Greece.
In September 2003, the Southeast European Cooperative Initiative (SECI, a Romania-based regional centre for fighting trans-border crime), launched operation Mirage, a coordinated crackdown on human traffickers in the region. During the 10-day regional effort, law enforcement authorities targeted both victims of and criminals involved in trafficking in human beings. Out of almost 600 identified traffickers, 207 were charged, and most of them convicted. Almost 500 victims of human trafficking were freed from the clutches of their “owners” and 63 were provided with assistance (services included shelter, repatriation, and psychological counseling). In 2,175 cases administrative measures were applied (fees, interdictions, temporary imprisonment, deportation). Although operation Mirage did not eradicate human trafficking in the region, government officials and NGOs agree that a significant progress was being made. However, out of 500 human traffickers arrested as a result of SECI cooperation by the end of 2004, only 50 went to trial, and only 5 resulted in conviction.
Cooperation “favored” by international sanctions
The sanctions against the Milosevic regime in former Yugoslavia during the ‘990s led to the appearance of criminal groups that cooperated with each other and with the authorities in order to access channels for the import or export of prohibited goods. Under these circumstances, any form of smuggling was legalized and all those who broke the UN blockade were treated by the Serbian propaganda as “heroes”. Serbian criminal groups from all the territories of former Yugoslavia, tolerated and supported by the state, gained enough power as to exert a strong political influence. Due to the contacts established with the Albanian mafia groups, the UN embargo was broken, making it possible to supply the Bosnian Serbs and the Yugoslav army with fuel. Meanwhile, due to the support of the Macedonian mafia, approximately 1,000 trucks crossed the Macedonian border to Serbia each week.
During the weapons embargo, the warring republics of former Yugoslavia were forced to buy weapons on regional and international black markets, and the payment of these weapons was usually made by uncontrolled budget positions and voluntary funds. During these transactions, major financial frauds were committed, some of which have ended up in the courts.
The Slobodan Milosevic government intentionally merged its law-enforcing institutions, and especially the security service, with organized crime to set up an extensive system of parallel grey and black economies to circumvent the UN-imposed sanctions. The purpose was twofold: first, to profit those involved; second, to serve as a safety valve, and thus prevent a popular uprising of the impoverished population, which became absolutely dependent on the black market and the shadow economy. This dependency also consolidated the bond between the Serbian security apparatus and organized crime. And while the smuggling channels during the war were mostly used for trafficking oil, cigarettes, tobacco, and arms, after the war’s end and the lifting of sanctions, the same channels and networks were used for more profitable drugs smuggling operations.
An interesting insight into the way the crime gangs co-operated on the Balkan route in the ‘990s was the case of Qamil Shabani, an ethnic Albanian from Urosevac and a close associate of Metush Bajrami, an ethnic Albanian from Macedonia with a Bulgarian citizenship, who supervised heroin transports via Turkey, Bulgaria, and Macedonia. Shabani was also linked with the Serbian crime ring known as the Zemun gang, which was well-connected with BIA (formerly the State Security Service, or SDB), then the Serbian largest security agency. Members of the Zemun gang were regularly picking up heroin shipments from Shabani’s warehouse in Urosevac and transported them into Serbia through the Presevo valley; thanks to their connections with BIA, their vehicles were often escorted by Serbian security officers, ensuring the trucks could pass through police checkpoints without being searched. The scheme worked until the leaders of the Zemun gang and their BIA accomplices were arrested in 2003, after they organized the assassination of Serbia’s Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic. Shabani continued to operate, presumably with new Serbian partners, until September 2005, when he was arrested by the international police after some 110 kilograms of high-grade heroin were found in his possession. Metush Bajrami was picked up some months earlier near Milan, Italy.
During the trial of the assassins of Prime Minister Djindjic, it was established that the leading members of the Zemun gang underwent “special training courses” by BIA, and that the agency routinely provided protection for the gang members. The Zemun gang’s main field of operation was drug smuggling, but they were also engaged in kidnappings, extortion, and targeted assassinations.
Also, in September 2001, almost a year after Milosevic was toppled, some 700 kilograms of heroin and cocaine were found in a private bank’s vault in central Belgrade. It turned out that the vault was rented to BIA two years earlier, which used it to store drugs confiscated by customs in previous years, allegedly for “safekeeping”. Although this was illegal by Serbian law, no charges were brought against BIA officials, nor was explained why such a large quantity of drugs were stored in such conditions. The drugs were allegedly destroyed after the find, but no one except police and BIA officials were present.
The Albanian mafia in the late 20th century: narco-traffic and terrorism
According to many experts, at its peak period, the drug trade on the Balkan Route was mainly coordinated by the Albanian mafia and the Turkish crime syndicates. The Albanian Mafia became very active since the collapse of the Communist rule in this country opened the way for indigenous gangs to take part in various organized crime forms.
Its geographical area is mainly situated in the triangle Pristina (Kosovo) – Tetovo (Macedonia/FYROM) and Tirana (Albania). The Albanians are considered as being a “true” Mafia in the Balkans due to the peculiar social structure of their society in the northern parts of the country, namely “the land of the Genghis”. It is an isolated society with very firm beliefs in issues of honor and manhood pride coupled with severe social problems and a culture of vendetta. Various reports indicate that roughly 70-80% of the heroin distributed in Europe is under Albanian control. On the Balkan route the Albanian mafia plays a vital role in protecting shipments from police and official interruption by having its “Soldiers” and “Capos” along the way.
The main role of the Albanian Mafia in the narcotics trade is the one of wholesale distributor of Afghan heroine, which they import and then distribute to Italy, or through Bosnia-Croatia to Austria and Central Europe. After 1999 and the consequent Albanian dominance in Kosovo, Pristina also became an important narcotics center.
The Albanian mafia works together with Turkish crime syndicates and both make use of their European diasporas as local retail agents for the heroin distribution in Europe. The alliance of Turkish and Albanian crime groups can also be explained by the cultural, religious and ethnic links (a large number of Turks in Western Turkey have Albanian ancestry).
The recent history of the Albanian mafia groups also revealed the connections between criminal activities and terrorism. Albanian groups in the north of the country have been associated with the preparations of the Usthria Climirtare Kombëtare (National Liberation Army – UCK/NLA) guerilla forces in the late ‘990s.
In early 1994 Osama Bin Laden, paid a visit to Tirana, presumably to oversight the networking of his activities there. He came back in 1998 to oversight Al-Qaeda training camps in the northern part of Albania, just across the borders with Kosovo. The trainers – of Arabic origin mostly – were assigned to train the newly recruits of the UCK units for the forthcoming guerilla warfare against the Yugoslav forces in Kosovo.
The Director of the Albanian secret service (SHIK) at that moment, Fatos Klosi, admitted the training that took place in these camps and the existence of “Jihad warriors” from Sudan, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt that were responsible for the instruction of the UCK army.
During the 1999 and the NATO campaign against Serbia, it was a common secret among the members of the international community that the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) was financed and assisted by the Albanian organized crime that hoped to achieve a safe haven in the Kosovo area.
Warlords and mujahedeen
During and after the wars of the 1990s, in most former Yugoslav countries, public power was understood to be based on a mixture of kleptocracy, organized crime and alleged patriotism; in that period, state officials in Zagreb, Sarajevo, Pristina, Podgorica, Skopje, Belgrade and so on, transferred large amounts of national resources into their own hands and into the hands of their local elites. During these years, criminal organizations, mafia groups and local clans acquired a central role in supporting political leaders, doing the dirty work and profiting from smuggling, black market, drug and human traffic across the renewed Balkan state borders. Such conditions led to a considerable power and influence of the so-called warlords that sometimes can still be seen nowadays.
Arkan and his Tigers: a creation of the special services
Zeljko Raznatovic, also known as Arkan (a name taken from one of his forged passports), was born in Brezice (Slovenia) on April 17, 1952, son of a well known partisan and pilot and ward of the Slovenian politician and Federal Minister of the Interior, Stane Dolanc, a chief of the secret police and a close associate of the Yugoslav president Tito. Whenever Raznatovic was in trouble, Dolanc helped him, allegedly as a reward for his services to the Yugoslav secret state police (UDBA). Dolanc is quoted as having said: “One Arkan is worth more than the whole UDBA.”
Arkan was first arrested in Belgrade in 1966 for stealing a woman’s purse and spent a year in juvenile detention, before moving to Western Europe in the 1970s. Between 1973 and 1983, he was convicted and arrested for bank heists, robberies and attempted murder in Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy. He managed to escape from most of the prisons in which he was held.
After he came back to Serbia, Raznatovic became the leader of the hardcore Red Star Belgrade football fans, the ‘Delije’, who would provide him with some of his future Tigers. At that time, the state security service at the Serbian interior ministry tasked him with setting up the unit in autumn 1990 to carry out “black operations” in Croatia. In return, Arkan was given different benefits, mainly economic, as well as protection from prosecution for his more orthodox criminal activities.
Although Arkan was arrested in October 1990, before the war in Croatia, and sentenced to five years in jail for plotting a terror attack after police found weapons in his car, he never went to prison. A non-official widespread explanation was that the Serbian and Croatian interior ministries made a deal to secure his freedom, since Arkan was an important asset for Serbian state security.
The Serbian Volunteer Guard (the official name of the Tigers) was a relatively small paramilitary force made up of ‘Delije’ football ultras, criminals and ordinary volunteers who admired Arkan. While rumors circulated that the paramilitaries were funded by Serbian state security, officially the troops were financed by Arkan, who was supposedly very rich, and by wealthy expatriate Serbs also acted as sponsors.
The Tigers were mainly deployed to support the Yugoslav People’s Army – as they did during the siege of the Croatian city of Vukovar in 1991 – but their image as brutal, disciplined killers also had a chilling impact on Belgrade’s enemies.
The Tigers were first accused of war crimes during fighting in Tenja (Croatia) in July 1991, when at least 29 people were killed and over 2,900 non-Serbs expelled, according to the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Centre. Soon afterwards, the head of the Serbian interior ministry’s special forces, Radovan Stojicic (alias ‘Badza’), provided them with a training camp at an old Yugoslav territorial defense base in the Croatian village of Erdut, which remained their military headquarters until May 1996. Army deserters and Serb refugees were also forced to join Raznatovic’s paramilitaries and some of them and later sued Serbia for forcing them to go to war.
According to many witnesses, the allegations of war crimes and ethnic cleansing continued to shadow the Tigers because Arkan’s men were brought in so that any killings of civilians could be blamed on ‘lawless paramilitaries’, and because they could strike fear into the local population.
Arkan’s men withdrew from Bosnia in the summer of 1992, after their leader had a dispute with Bosnian Serb Army commander Ratko Mladic, who thought he was a criminal. He returned to Bosnia in September 1995, when he and his men entered the north-western Sanski Most area. The Sanski Most killings led to Arkan’s indictment by the Hague Tribunal for crimes against humanity, murders, grave breaches of the Geneva Convention and violation of the laws and customs of war. Zeljko Raznatovic was the only person indicted, and since he died, no one else was charged with the killings.
The Serbian Volunteer Guard disbanded in April 1996, but Arkan maintained his notoriety. Married to Serbian turbo-folk star Ceca, he took over a minor Belgrade football club, FK Obilic, which soon went on to win the national championship, reputedly through threats and intimidation. He also set up his own political party. The paramilitary chief had become a mafia hero, because Arkan was both policeman and mafia boss, both paramilitary commander and the owner of a football club, both in showbiz and on Interpol’s most wanted list. Eventually, Arkan was shot dead at Belgrade’s Intercontinental Hotel in January 2000, in what was supposed to be a mafia settlement of accounts.
The Zemun clan
At the moment of Arkan’s death, Belgrade was a bombed city transformed into a battlefield for gangs, where bosses and smugglers went to wash dirty money financing the building of new apartment blocks and commercial centers. The leading faction was then the feared Zemun clan, located in the suburb with the same name, north of Belgrade. The group’s connections with the army and the government (pre- and post Milosevic) became clear after the assassination of Socialist Serbia’s former president Ivan Stambolic in 2000, and of prime minister Zoran Djindjic in 2003.
Many members of this organization were part of a disparate but well-sponsored section of the army: the special operation unit (Jedinica za Cpecijalne Operacije – JSO), also known as the Red Berets, which merged many paramilitary units that fought in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo and included the remnants of Arkan’s Tigers. The leader of the Zemun clan, Dusan Spasojevic, was killed by Serbian police two weeks after Djindjic’s death.
The fall of the leaderships that led the war, as Milosevic’s in Serbia and Tudjman’s hardliners in Croatia, unveiled the importance of mafia in the social and political order of these new states.
Historians and analysts agree that the Western Balkans’ organized crime survived by changing its shape and methods, just as the Italian mafia had been forced to do during the 1990s. In Italy, the capos came to understand that public bombings and killings in broad daylight could have a boomerang effect: these acts ended up arousing public anger, and brought increased attention from the police.
Similarly, the current mafia leaders in the Balkans are not warlords who built their fortune conducting massacres and robbery during the conflict in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. In those countries where changes at the top made contacts with power more and more difficult, mafia survived submerging in the society, trying to become “invisible,” to gain freedom for its trafficking operations. This is why the Zemun clan survived many years and was capable to act beyond Serbian territory, as in the case of the 2009 Vastberga helicopter robbery in Sweden, in which armed men used a stolen helicopter and decoy explosives to drop down on top of a cash depot and make off with some $5.3 million. According to the Serbian Interior Minister, the Zemun clan was behind the Stockholm job. Serbian intelligence had warned their Swedish counterparts several weeks earlier that plans for a major criminal operation were in the works.
Crimes without punishment
While the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia established many killings having as authors members of the Serb paramilitaries, the men led by Zeljko Raznatovic “Arkan” have never been jailed for murder, rape or looting – or for any of the other crimes they were accused of committing during the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
Arkan’s death in 2000 also ensured that he would never go on trial. Since then, only one of his fighters has been convicted of committing a war crime while serving with the Tigers – Boban Arsic, found guilty by a Croatian court of killing a married couple in a small village in 1992 – and even he was convicted in absentia because his whereabouts were unknown. Some Tigers have been jailed for other crimes, such as the assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in 2003, but not for anything they did while fighting under Arkan.
One explanation forwarded by some Balkan experts was that the Hague Tribunal was set up to prosecute high-level suspects, not ordinary fighters, and the rank-and-file of Arkan’s unit were expected to be prosecuted by the national/local war crimes courts. In fact, there was no political will in that sense and in Serbia investigations avoided following the chain-of-command and never targeted the senior officials who made possible the existence of the paramilitary units.
In time, some of Arkan’s most important allies also died. His special forces sponsor, Radovan Stojicic, was gunned down in a restaurant in Belgrade in 1997, and his political master, Slobodan Milosevic, died in custody in The Hague in 2006. The most notorious of the Tigers, Milorad Ulemek, alias ‘Legija’, was sentenced 40 years in jail for his role in the assassination of Djindjic.
Former Serbian state security chief Jovica Stanisic and his deputy Franko Simatovic were acquitted by the Hague Tribunal in 2013 of controlling units like the Tigers, although the court did find that they supplied and financed Serb paramilitaries.
Many former Tigers are at large in Serbia and have never been indicted. According to Bosnian war crimes lawyer Miodrag Stojanovic, it was impossible for Sarajevo to prosecute because Belgrade is not willing to send Serb suspects for trial.
According to former Tiger Borislav Pelevic, Arkan’s closest associate, who later ran his nationalist Party of Serbian Unity and was president of the European Kickboxing Association, the lack of prosecutions itself showed they were innocent. In fact, prosecutors specialized in war crimes investigations pointed out that there were practical problems with bringing Serb paramilitaries to justice, especially the fact that that they concealed their identities, and could not be identified by the victims.
However, many believe that the real reason for which Arkan’s men have not been prosecuted was their leader’s links to Serbian police officials, politicians and organized crime.
A similar situation may be seen in Kosovo, where many warlords of the former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) are to be found in high-level politics, including the current president Hashim Thaci, a former KLA commander. Two other significant political leaders, Fatmir Limaj and Ramush Haradinaj, a former prime minister, have been tried for war crimes, and acquitted. Also, the current leader of the Kosovo Democratic Party (PDK) is Kadri Veseli, a former commander in the KLA’s intelligence service.
In December 2010, Swiss member of the Council of Europe Dick Marty presented a report claiming that Hashim Thaci, had been head of a human organs traffic group during the 1998-99 war while a top figure in the KLA.
The Mujahedeen Battalion: Jihad in the Balkans
During the Balkan wars, Arab militants – many of whom fought with American support against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s – journeyed to Bosnia and formed the “Mujahedeen Battalion” to fight against the Orthodox Christian Serbs and Catholic Croats fighting the Muslim Bosniaks (around 40 percent of the country’s population of 3.86 million).
At the beginning, there were but a few dozen militants who went to defend their co-religionists in Bosnia, as Serbian paramilitaries drove them from their homes in the west and east of the country. When the conflict became a three-way fight against Catholic Croatians as well as the Serbs, the Mujahedeen Battalion swelled to the hundreds and started to hunt non-believers more actively.
In mid-1992 many Mujahedeen were already present in the ranks of the Bosnian Army as volunteer forces. They retained their operational autonomy and in essence became an army within an army. Most of their forces were under the command of General Shakib Mahmouljin and their area of operations was Zenica.
The foreigners never amounted to more than one per cent of the fighting force at the disposal of the Sarajevo government. From an early stage the Mujahedeen also started recruiting Bosnians and, by 1995, in the final months of the war, the incorporation of several hundred local men allowed the outfit to be expanded into the Mujahedeen Brigade.
The Mujahedeen Battalion was suspected in many war atrocities, including the kidnapping and murder of aid workers as well as the execution of 20 Croatian prisoners.
By the summer of 1993, the Sarajevo government was starting to see the potentially toxic effect of the jihadists on their image as a multi-ethnic, secular republic. In an attempt to control it, the battalion was placed under the command of III Corps, the Bosnian Army formation headquartered in Zenica. Its commander at the time, Brigadier General Enver Hadzihasanovic, ended up facing a war crimes trial in Hague on charges of overall responsibility for some of the Mujahedeen’s behavior. In the end, the prosecution dropped the charges, but the general served two years, having been found guilty of having (Bosnian) troops under him who had abused prisoners.
From the outset, the general had felt the Mujahedeen were dangerous and in a secret message to army chiefs in 1993, he said: “My opinion is that behind [the Mujahedeen] there are some high-ranking politicians and religious leaders.” As the general’s 1993 memo implied, there were some leaders, including Alija Izetbegovic, Bosnia’s President at the time, who were happy to welcome the foreign fighters, partly as a way of keeping wealthy Arab donors.
When the war ended, under the Dayton Peace Accord all foreign fighters had to leave, and they were duly ordered out in 1996, but part of them remained, taking Bosnian citizenship. Up to 400 are believed to have settled in Bosnia, many of them marrying local women. They established the first Islamic community in the village of Bocinja Donja. During 2006 and 2007, hundreds of citizenships were revoked for Islamists residing in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but the whereabouts of most of them remain unknown. A former commander of the Mujahedeen Brigade, an Egyptian by the name of Imad al-Misri, also known as Eslam Durmo, was extradited to Egypt and came back to Bosnia in 2013, being released by the opponents of ex-President Mubarak. Back in Bosnia, Al-Misri began preaching right away.
After the end of the 1999 war, the Mujahedeen networks regrouped and started to infiltrate the Kosovo area.
In 2001, the Mujahedeen forces were involved with the National Liberation Army (NLA) in its fight in Western Macedonia (FYROM). The Mujahedeen formed the majority of the 113 brigade of NLA, and were accused of many atrocities against innocent civilians of Slavic descent.
Arms trafficking during the Bosnian war[3]
During the war in Bosnia, the fighting parties were covertly supported by foreign actors, despite the criticisms for the power actors failing to halt the atrocities.
Iran was the first government to send covert arms supplies to Bosnia when, in September 1992, a Boeing 747 carrying small arms, ammunition, anti-tank rockets and communications equipment landed in the Croatian capital of Zagreb. This marked the beginning of the ‘Croatian pipeline’, a supply line to Bosnian forces in Sarajevo as well as to the Croatians. The Iranian arms shipments ran for around a year before being reduced in late 1993 due to increased conflict between the Bosnian Muslims and Croat forces.
There is evidence that Britain was also covertly supplying arms to both the Muslims and Croats in the early 1990s. Operation Clover, a US intelligence-sponsored plan with a $5 million budget involved at least one British covert operative. Since Croatia and Bosnia were under an international arms embargo, according to one source, Britain turned to Monzer al-Kassar, the arms dealer linked with terrorists who was a British agent involved in secret supplies to the Iranians in the 1980s. Al-Kassar was being described as a ‘Syrian drug trafficker, terrorist and arms trafficker’ by a US Senate investigation. It has been reported that in early 1992, 27 containers of Polish arms and ammunition were secretly supplied by Al-Kassar to Croatia, on a false end-user certificate which designated Yemen as the destination. The operation in Croatia may have continued into the second half of the 1990s, alongside a similar one for the Bosnians, though no details on this have emerged.
According to Bosnian Muslim military intelligence sources, Britain was also one of the main channels through which foreign jihadists entered Bosnia, while London hosted several financers and recruiters for the cause. Moreover, it appears that Britain, along with the U.S., actively encouraged foreign jihadists to go to Bosnia. Richard Holbrooke, the U.S.’s chief peace negotiator in the Balkans, later noted that the Bosnian Muslims ‘wouldn’t have survived’ without this help and called it a ‘pact with the devil’.
In late 1994 there were also reports that militants arriving from overseas were being accompanied into Bosnia by U.S. special forces equipped with high-tech communications equipment and were intending to establish a command, control, communications and intelligence network to coordinate Bosnian Muslim offensives.
Trends and Risks
Most intelligence assessments of the Western Balkans organized crime show as its main trends of evolution – and consequently risk factors – the interconnection between criminal gangs and terrorist groups, as well as the growing frequency of the migrant smuggling which continues the human trafficking of the 20th century.
Balkan Route criminal gangs and terrorism
The weak state structures and high levels of corruption have enabled several nexus groups to emerge and dominate drug trafficking and arms trade in European markets, but also to establish significant relationships with terrorist organizations. Violent rebellions in Albania led to the ransacking of hundreds of military and police storage facilities across the country. Over 100,000 weapons are believed to have been stolen over the course of a few months, the majority of which are still used in conflicts or recycled in European markets. Some are also believed to have ended in the hands of terrorist organizations, including sleeper cells based in Western countries, with Belgium providing the largest black market.
a) Several elements connected to the Balkan Route appear to have played a role in the Paris attacks in January and November 2015 and the Brussels attack in March 2016, among which the fact that part of the weapons used were smuggled by the Balkan organized crime network, as well as the routes through the porous Balkan borders used by the terrorists.
Eight days prior to the second Paris attacks, a car filled with Kalashnikovs, hand guns, hand grenades, dynamite, and ammunition was intercepted in Bavaria, within Germany. A Montenegrin driver was arrested. The GPS data indicated that the car was heading to Paris. German police informed the Paris authorities about this incident. After the Paris attack on November 13, 2015, Montenegro’s police issued an official statement on the Montenegrin driver, saying that he was “not a Muslim”, but he was part of a transnational organized crime network.
Also in the context of the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015, a study released by the Flemish Peace Institute, based in Brussels, concluded that the majority of firearms used for violent attacks, including the Paris shootings, make their way to Europe via the Western Balkans from groups that capitalize on existing routes originating in or transiting the region utilized for drug trafficking and other illegal activities.
b) Militant Islamist groups, including Daesh, seek to exploit home-grown cells established in the Western Balkans, but also diaspora-based communities and the trafficking networks elsewhere in Europe. According to an EU-led study, in addition to geographical components that link terrorism to Balkan organized crime, there is also a notable increase of Balkan second and third generation diaspora becoming more involved with radical Islamist communities based in the West. This has been particularly concerning for the Balkan diaspora in Austria, Switzerland, Italy and the UK, with a significant number of youth, mainly nationals of Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro, among others in the Balkan, joining Daesh in Syria and Iraq. In Switzerland, for instance, a sizable percentage of foreign fighters are of Balkan origin, particularly from Kosovo, whose migrant population makes up a large portion of Muslims in the country.
In July 2014, the Italian police, in collaboration with the Albanian authorities, carried a large operation against a group of Daesh supporters who had recruited and aided several foreign fighters to cross over to Turkey, to join Daesh. Among those arrested the majority were Albanian and Italian nationals who had allegedly assisted the travels of foreign fighters.
The 2014-2016 refugee smuggling route
The 2015 migration crisis has breathed new life into well-established criminal groups. Their geographical bases remain the same as they were in the 1990s: Albanians in Kosovo, northern Macedonia and southern Serbia; Greeks in Thessaloniki; Serbs in Belgrade; Bulgarians along their borders with Serbia, Macedonia and Turkey. All maintain close links with Turkish syndicates where refugees often start their journey to the European Union.
Although not as dangerous, the western Balkans route has its own perils. Dangerous criminals prey on the thousands of vulnerable migrants and refugees travelling north via Macedonia. Also, some may have even suffered at the hands of the mafia gangs.
The costs demanded by smugglers to the migrants vary on the western Balkans route. Those fleeing Syria, for instance, typically had to pay a fee of around $1,000 to squeeze into an inflatable dinghy for the short but perilous passage from the Turkish coast to nearby Greek islands, mainly Kos. Some said they have paid double. From there, Greek government-chartered ferries transported them to the mainland and, once there, the overland journey north begins. Inside Macedonia, migrants paid, on average, $500 to smugglers to navigate the country using off-road routes to Serbia, a journey that can take 10 days. Also, some migrants were forced to pay €100 bribes to Serbian border officials.
For the wealthy migrants, smugglers “offer” bespoke packages where each stage of the journey to western Europe is organized in advance, a strategy that avoids them negotiating with separate criminal gangs on each leg. A range of criminal services are offered to potential migrants, for example a premium service from Syria all the way to the UK or France for $15,000. Their services can include false documentation, bribes to border guards and transport, in dangerous, often deadly, circumstances.
Difficulties in countering organized crime
Arrests and increased military capacity do not address the real concerns that have enabled organized crime and religious radicalism to develop in the Balkans in the first place. On the other hand, very few believe that the region’s political elite has the will to confront violent extremism and organized crime.
In most Balkan countries, government authorities have often been reluctant to deal with organized crime out of fear of different threats, lack of motivation due to social insecurity or low salaries and professional uncertainty. Some of the officials, who had been promoted through family ties or political influence, have been vulnerable to pressure and intimidation, which has considerably increased the interference in the internal affairs of the police and the justice system.
Also, state institutions have been unable to successfully combat organized crime because of their own involvement in corruption and the involvement of official or political structures in criminal activities. In some cases, offenders had had previous militant careers or had been members of the opposition movement against the communist regime, so they may even have been promoted as heroes fighting for freedom, for the protection of the state or for democracy. If caught red-handed, they were usually punished only symbolically.
While transnational organized crime cannot be countered without international cooperation, despite the fact that the Balkan states have left behind the times when they had been reluctant to cooperate with each other, they have not yet established effective forms of cooperation with each other.
Back to Yugoslavia?
In the context of the recent Western Balkan Summit in Trieste, the German newspaper Die Welt[4] pointed out that the EU might consider a project of a customs union in the Balkans, since the Union is currently not able to receive new members.
According to the German newspaper, the planned Balkan customs union should be made up of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Macedonia, therefore all the countries created by the breakup of Yugoslavia, and possibly Albania. The goal of the customs union is to deactivate the Balkan powder keg, but without accepting these countries into the EU. Since Yugoslavia kept stable that explosive mix of peoples, the EU wants to revive it, this time as a customs and transport union, only without Croatia and Slovenia who are already in the EU.
Die Welt noted that polls show regret over the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the countries of the Western Balkans with the exception of Kosovo, and it is also noted that the disappearance of Yugoslavia had created a vacuum of power in Europe, which has not been properly filled to this day, a zone of conflict in the heart of Europe, where games of geopolitical domination are played by Russia, Turkey, the United States, Germany and other great powers.
In the projected customs union, Serbia would have the main role and all other countries would gravitate toward it, so it is not surprising that Belgrade strongly supports this idea. Macedonia would no longer have to fear for its survival because it would be part of a larger alliance, instead of alone and without defenses, surrounded by neighbors who are hostile: Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, and Serbia, who all to some degree consider Macedonia not to be a real state, some of its parts belonging to them, and Macedonians a made up people.
The projected union is supposed to be “bipolar”: on one hand, eight million Serbs in Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, on the other, five million Albanians in Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia would dominate the rest of the alliance. However, since the relationship between Serbia and Kosovo is problematic, as Serbia does not consider Kosovo an independent state, Die Welt considers that a “Cyprus scenario” could be repeated.
The Balkans have come a long way since the wars of the 1990s, but there are still unresolved political and economic challenges, especially in Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia, Albania and Macedonia. The involvement of outside power actors with diverging interests puts more strain on these countries, not the least being the growing influence of corrupt and criminal structures.
[1] As quoted by Reuters, speaking on October 2 before Albanian judges and aspiring magistrates
[2]Ivan Angelovski, Lawrence Marzouk: Revealed: The Pentagon Is Spending Up To $2.2 Billion on Soviet-Style Arms for Syrian Rebels, 12.09.2017, posted on
[3] Extracted from Mark Curtis: Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam, 2016
[4] Warum die EU auf dem Balkan ein Mini-Jugoslawien schafft, 12.07.2017, Die Welt, see

Check Also

Economic Challenges As The Fundamentals Of China’s Fiscal Issues

China’s Central Comprehensive Deepening Reform Commission (hereafter referred to as the Reform Commission) has recently …