Historically, the Balkans have served as a geographic bridge between Europe and Asia. As such, the Balkan Peninsula has been used by various dangerous criminal groups as a transit corridor for the trafficking and smuggling of various kinds of drugs and weapons to Europe. In spite of these centuries-old activities, the phenomenon of organized crime in the Balkans has evolved, in the contemporary context of this regional plague, it has emerged only during the last decades of the twentieth century.
In particular, the great economic crisis of the 1980s of the XX Century that was riveting the former Yugoslavia and other countries of Southeast Europe, followed by economic sanctions and various political conflicts, have provided optimal conditions for the emergence of organized crime in this part of Europe; throughout the territories of the Balkan Peninsula. Meanwhile, other social factors and the surging of legal and institutional vacuums during the transitional period that these countries experienced, have encouraged such a rapid development of organized crime in the Western Balkans – that became for a short period of time – as one of the most important hubs of international organized crime.
Some of the main factors that have influenced the proliferation and development of organized crime in Western Balkans are:
1. Geographic position. The shortest routes connecting Europe with the Middle East and Asia run through the Balkan Peninsula. It seems that its geographic position, more than any other factors – including the historical, national or cultural – has influenced the “construction” and attracted preference of the “Balkan Road” for the smuggling of people, illegal immigrants, conducting human trafficking, drugs trafficking running across East – West and vice – versa.
2. The Balkan Road. After the finding of Heroin on August 21st, 1897, by the German scientist Felix Hoffmann “as an effective remedy against cough and pain”, called Heroin from the conviction that he had made a heroic discovery, its mass consumption began to take place in some developed countries of Europe. However, the disturbing consequences of drug addiction and the societal repercussions it had caused led to the organization of several international symposia on the health and social consequences of drugs, such as the one in Shanghai (1909), The Hague (1912, 1913, 1914), Geneva (1925, 1931). 1936) and other cities. After a thorough arguing of the negative consequences of drugs, some European countries began to enact laws against the consumption and trade of narcotics. Thus began a clandestine and illegal drug trafficking in Europe.
One of the main routes of drug trafficking to Europe is the so-called “Balkan Road”. According to international agencies fighting organized crime (Interpol, Europol and the Paris-based Global Drug Monitoring Agency / Observatoire Geopolitique Des Drogues), this route began to be used during the 1970s (of the XX Century). The geopolitical advantages offered by the Balkans have made this road to become one of the most popular routes in the world for human trafficking and drug smuggling to Europe.
3. The Yugoslav liberalization. During the late 1970s of the XX century, Yugoslavia had installed a relatively liberal regime of movement amongst its citizens and goods. Meanwhile in all other dictatorial states of the region, such movements were restricted and strictly controlled. Undoubtedly, such economic liberalization and other geopolitical advantages offered by the Yugoslav state – compared to other countries in the region – have favored the Balkan Route for trafficking and smuggling of various goods to Europe and Asia.
4. The Economic crisis. During the last decades of the XX century, the former Yugoslavia and other socialist governments were succumbed into a major economic crisis, that caused a drastic economic downturn and a drastic rise in inflation and unemployment. These economic crises had certainly caused fierce political tensions mainly between the various Yugoslav republics. In front of such circumstances, characterized by the serious weakening of state institutions, in the entire region of the Western Balkans, groups of local people were engaged in organized criminal activities such as: human trafficking, drug smuggling, forgery of diplomas and other documents, briberies and banknote forgeries.
5. Corruption. The economic crisis, political tensions and the weakening of state bodies have enabled the unimpeded development of corruption throughout all Western Balkan countries. Thus the public officials of these states, disillusioned by their former communist or nationalist ideologies and demoralized even by low wages, have no longer served the public interest but nurtured their rapid and illegal enrichment.
6. Sanctions of 1992 against Former Yugoslavia. As a result of restrictions on the imports, exports and transit of prohibited goods, during the 1990s, various criminal groups appeared throughout the former Yugoslavia cooperating with each other and all were supporting the regime of Slobodan Milošević in finding channels for import and export of prohibited goods as well as for the intermediation to supply oil, drugs, tobacco and other scarce commodities to the Serbian market. In such circumstances, any form of smuggling of goods was legalized and all parties active in breaking the UN blockade were treated by Serbian propaganda as “heroes”. Consequently, all border settlements in Serbia were turned into hubs of trafficking and smuggling. Under these circumstances the distinction line between state-organized crime, corruption and the mafia was invisible. Thus, Serbian and Albanian criminal groups were strengthened, contrary to the bloody political conflicts, they cooperated in breaking the UN embargo, in order to supply even Bosnian Serbs and the Yugoslav army with oil and ammunition. Thus, every week an average of over one thousand trucks with different goods were passing from Macedonia to Serbia.
7. The Arms Embargo. The imposition of an arms embargo had prevented several conflicting former Yugoslav republics from purchasing weapons legally. In war circumstances, they had purchased weapons in several regional and international black markets. Payments for purchased weapons were usually made from uncontrolled budget funds and voluntary funds created at home and abroad. Since then, specialized criminal groups for regional arms trafficking have emerged and continue to operate until today.
8. The Transition Period. The destruction of the former Yugoslavia and the fall of the socialist regime in Albania marked the beginning of the transition period in all of the new states of Western Balkans. During this period of radical economic, political and legal transformations, legislative and institutional vacuums enabled the emergence and development of organized criminal activities in many countries of the Western Balkans.
Indeed, there is no such a “Balkan Drug Cartel” in the Western Balkans. No national mafia structure has been established here, as scholars sometimes propagandize. However, in all countries of the Western Balkans, accordingly small criminal groups have been created that cooperate strongly among each other, in the field of international narcotics smuggling, smuggling of human beings, trafficking of stolen vehicles, smuggling of weapons, money laundering, etc. Cooperation between regional organized crime groups in the Balkans, even between those with “confronted ethnic and religious backgrounds”, is evident through reports from international crime-fighting organizations. Thus, according to Europol, heroin smuggling in the European Union is not organized or controlled by a single criminal organization but takes place through an established cooperation and partnership between Turkish organizations and some criminal groups, mainly from the Western Balkans.
*Prof. Dr. Kolë KRASNIQI was born on November 27th, 1961 in Gl1aviçica, Municipality of Peja. He completed the primary school in his hometown, and high school in Peja. In 1985 he graduated from the Faculty of Law of the University of Prishtina. In 1992, after completing his scientific internship in Croatia, he successfully defended his master’s thesis entitled: “The role of Open Correctional Institutions in the re-socialization of convicted persons and in the prevention of crime.” In 1994 he pursued his doctoral studies at the Faculty of Law of the University of Vienna, where he graduated in June 1998. Since 2006 Krasniqi has been working as a Distinguished Full Professor at the FAMA University College in Prishtina, where he was also a Dean for four years (2008-2012). Since 2012 Professor Krasniqi has been working as a Professor of Law in the Faculty of Law, Haxhi Zeka University in Pejë, Kosovo, where he also served as the Dean from 2012 to 2016. Kole KRASNIQI is the author of several books, has written over fifty white papers and scientific research articles published in various national and international scientific journals in over seven languages.