Tragedy, Transition and Transformation: Tracing the Local-International Nexus of Transnational Organized Crime in the Balkans
Summary of the East European Studies seminar with Louise Shelley, Director of the Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at American University, DC; and Christopher Corpora, an Analyst with the U.S. Department of Defense and a Ph.D. Candidate at American University, DC.
The problem of organized crime and corruption in the Balkans is deeply-rooted and centuries old. It is, therefore, a serious challenge that will take, under the best circumstances, at least two generations to adequately address. These multi-billion dollar activities, which have strong local as well as transnational roots, have evolved to the point where criminal organizations serve important functions in place of the government. More recently, there has even been significant cooperation between organized criminal groups from competing, even warring, ethnic factions in the former Yugoslavia. Louise Shelley and Christopher Corpora prescribe the patient development of civil society and a focus on eliminating the "facilitators" of crime and corruption as the only effective means of addressing this transnational challenge.
Mr. Corpora emphasized the local nature of the criminal networks in the Balkans in explaining how deep-rooted these activities have become as well as the strong nature of local personal ties that typify organized criminal activity in the region. Three major categories of players include: 1) the elites, who provide vital services and legitimacy; 2) the facilitators - key wealthy or influential figures in the local community who make things function; and 3) the artisans - the workers and the unemployed who implement many of the activities. These organized crime groups comprise a large sector of the economy. Capitalizing on the weak, financially-strapped governments that lack significant social control, these groups thrive by providing goods and services that the government cannot. Such groups also reinvest significant sums in the local communities, legitimizing extortion practices in the process. Dr. Shelley emphasized that governments will fail to receive citizen support in eradicating organized criminal networks until the government can provide legitimate alternate means of acquiring the goods and services provided through these groups.
Both speakers briefly mentioned that the international community itself must take some responsibility for the proliferation of criminal networks in the Balkans, as many groups strive to meet the demands of the international peacekeepers and NGO community for items such as alcohol, cigarettes, restaurants, women, etc. It is essential that the international community take greater steps to address the demand side of the equation, not just the supply side aspects, and that a larger degree of accountability must be enforced with respect to foreign individuals.
The speakers stressed the close connection between organized crime in the Balkans and terrorist activity. When questioned about the presence of Muslim terrorist groups operating in the Balkans, Mr. Corpora noted that there is strong evidence to suggest that several groups exist in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia. Many members of the Mujahadeen, who arrived in Bosnia to assist the Bosnian Muslims during the Bosnian civil war, stayed and married, and remain a source of concern. In addition, groups such as the UCK paramilitary organization in Kosovo and the Chetniks in the Republika Srpska in Bosnia have clearly been involved in organized crime and have been implicated in terrorist-type activities. Organized crime provides a valuable source of revenue for terrorist groups to fund international criminal acts, and a rise in activity during the last five to ten years has been increasingly evident.
Both speakers indicated that it is important to recognize that organized crime is a central, not peripheral, issue. Furthermore, it is more than just a law enforcement problem. An independent judiciary and rule of law are also critical to eradicating the problem, and these elements are still sorely lacking in most post-Yugoslav states.