Transnational organized crime in the former Yugoslav Republics is a complex amalgam of local and international crime groups. The crime groups are not mafia-like in that they are not hierarchical groups based on formal associations. Instead, these are network structures loosely cooperating, which are deeply embedded in their communities. Performing functions on the local level, they cannot easily be dislodged because of weak government, local passivity, and even outright complicity. Furthermore, these organizations have such strength because they draw on the traditional links among Slavic communities, such as established trade routes and the historic geopolitical importance of the Balkan Peninsula within Europe.
Historical Roots of Illicit Activity
The illicit political economy of the region developed alongside legitimate trade routes. During major conflicts in the Balkan Peninsula over the last millennium, the extensive Adriatic coast played a significant role in the surreptitious movement of troops, arms, and goods necessary for sustaining both, offensive and defensive alignments. Throughout Balkan history, strong informal networks developed to support clandestine activity. For example, Tito's Partisans and Mihaljovic's Chetniks used these established routes to stay in nearly continuous contact with allied forces and smuggle weapons and other goods into the region, reinforcing resistance efforts in Serbia during WWII. These are the same informal routes and social ties that currently are exploited by a range of transnational crime groups.
The Nature of Transnational Organized Crime
The region is not merely a base for diverse domestic criminal groups. The absence of political controls and center-local trust allows criminal groups from other countries to use this geographically strategic region to promote their illicit activities. Domestic crime groups are embedded in Balkan informal society. These groups control access to informal local networks and extract revenues through rental and protection agreements with the foreign crime groups. Russian and Ukrainian (and to a lesser extent Romanian and Bulgarian) transnational criminal organization have access to clandestine routes via these connections. For example, the IRA and ETA smuggle weapons to Albania; Central Asian narco-trafficking groups move drugs through the region; and human smugglers from the Indian subcontinent traverse the area with their human cargo. Geographic and political circumstances - ranging from the long, deep-water coast and dense forests, to weak governing structures and corrupted law enforcement - make interdiction of both domestic and transnational crime groups a complex and difficult venture.
The Local Context Matters
Domestic organized crime groups are embedded in informal society and operate through informal networks. Transnational organized crime taps into this society and these networks through working agreements that are advantageous to all entities involved in the illicit exchange. These associations present the greatest long-term problems for regional democratization because they taint the legitimate elements of the social base. For analytical purposes, Balkan informal society can be divided into three groups: elites, facilitators and artisans. Elites, often participate in the existing power structures, playing important roles in both formal and informal institutions and society. Facilitators tend to have local roots as a result of schooling, military service, or some period of contact with the local community. In this way, facilitators become accepted members of a specific informal local network. They serve as a crucial link to the transnational criminal groups and act as recruiters and marketers. The artisans are local business owners, service providers, craftsmen, and increasingly, the unemployed and disenfranchised. Typically, this segment of informal society is the most active participant in illicit activities because they bring both money and prestige to the family, unaware of how this activity pushes away democratization and chances for economic stability. In turn, this double move reinforces both, artisan participation in criminal activities and the position of criminal organizations in informal society. The interconnected and overlapping nature of these roles in the criminalized portions of the informal society entrench the problem in the greater local context.
The simultaneous involvement in both the legitimate and illegitimate world means that external strategies to suppress the informal structures are doomed to failure because many of the criminal organizations and leaders play legitimate roles in local society. Misunderstanding this complexity leads to inappropriate interdiction policies. For example, internationally- supported interdictions of transnational organized crime range from RS Airlines and the Renner Group to the Capljina Market and Hercegovacka Banka. These actions have also proven damaging to center-local relations. Instead of curbing transnational criminality these interdictions reinforced criminal segments within informal society by driving a deeper wedge between center-local trust relations.
Rooting Solutions in the Local Context
The present policies addressing transnational organized crime are not effective because they are perceived as attacking legitimate parts of local informal networks and society. This does not mean that all strategies to address deep-rooted organized crime are doomed necessarily to failure. Solutions must be more broadly based - understanding that informal society and organized crime use the same networks - but should not be conflated. Balkan informal society and social networks have a legitimate place in this region and should be transformed, rather than destroyed. Balkan informal society provides legitimate fertile ground for the development of a more advanced civil society. Decriminalizing this space, without destroying it, is an important preparatory step in creating the necessary circumstances for a vibrant civil society. De-coupling informal society and organized crime allows for more precise interdiction, intervening in the criminal elements without excessive or collateral damage to the useful parts of informal society. Targeting local facilitators in a way that effectively removes them from informal society provides a useful first-step in the longer processes of Balkan social transformation. By removing the most pernicious elements of organized crime, it may be possible for the local society to develop in line with regional democratization and stability projects. Democratizing from the bottom-up may allow a non-criminalized informal society to develop and meld with formal structures. By investing more time, money, and initiative in local democratization projects the international community will be better placed to build partnerships with communities and identify the key facilitators of illicit activities. This approach will go a long way in assisting the transformation of informal society to a more transparent and empowered foundation of civil society.
Christopher A. Corpora and Louise I. Shelley spoke together on April 9, 2002, at the first of a series of EES seminars on organized crime and terrorism in the Balkans. Meeting Report #252.