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European Regional Master's Degree in Democracy and Human Rights in South East Europe
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Bridge between East and West: Organized Crime and the Balkan Route

by: Giulia Tarantini
pp: 103
ISBN: 978-88-96951-20-0

In collaboration with:
MIREES Alumni International Association (MAiA)


The main focus of the present research is on the recent developments that have taken place among different forms of organized crime in the South- Eastern European region, on the origins of such developments, on the contemporary situation and possible future perspectives.
The region has been at the centre of various studies, which have looked in turn at the debated origins of the Yugoslav wars, the economic consequences of the transition towards a market economy, the political results of the democratization process, the relations between the different ethnic groups inhabiting it and the protection accorded to them by governments, and its relations with the European Union, including whether or not some of the countries should be eligible for the EU membership. Only more recently has the analysis also focused on the powerful influence organized crime has exerted and is exerting on the region.
Such studies, however, are often based only on one aspect of the phenomenon, namely a specific type of illicit activity, on some or just one country, or on a specific historical period. The new approach brought by this research lies, instead, in the fact that it takes into consideration all the countries which are normally deemed to compose South-Eastern Europe, despite their intrinsic differences, by connecting the contemporary developments of the most widespread organized criminal activities to the historical, political and social developments of the past, going back to the time of the Ottoman Empire. Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Kosovo, thus, do not only share common cultural, historical, social and religious paths, as well as often similar if not identical languages, but they all also share the common plague of organized crime.
This work aims, thus, to analyze how organized crime was born in the region, which factors contributed to its significant expansion, and how it is currently evolving. By going back to the ancient roots of the phenomenon, which grew throughout centuries of history, within empires, dictatorships and democratic states, often backed by the tacit or explicit approval of rulers and governments, the contemporary existence and expansion of the criminal organizations of South-Eastern Europe finds its explanation. Not only peculiar historical and geographical circumstances gave a fundamental boost to the birth and growth of the phenomenon, but the prompt collaboration of different ethnic groups (even when they were fighting among each other), which expanded thanks to diaspora networks and international links, guaranteed its strength and an always larger field of activity.
Looking at these territories from different perspectives ranging from geography to modern and contemporary history and from economics to criminology, can shed some light on a reality which is very often ignored.
A “Balkan Route” which crosses all the countries of the region is the main focus of the research, and will be held as symbol of the criminal connections existing among them. By linking drug producers to drug consumers, but also countries of origin of illegal migrants or persons to be smuggled into wealthy countries, carrying the burden of violent past events and characterized by porous borders, South-Eastern Europe became an ideal transit zone for several types of illicit goods, drugs and even human beings, the most recent evolution.
A historical digression into the remote past of the region will show that organized criminal groups and activities are not a new phenomenon originating from globalization or economic difficulties, but that they existed long before the formation of independent states, and expanded during and, in a certain way, thanks especially to the Yugoslav wars. Brigandage or illicit smugglings are, obviously, not a unique to this region of the world, since crime was present long before states in many parts of it, and, obviously, even a past in which lawlessness was the rule does not entail an inescapable future dominated by organized crime. However, this work is aimed at showing, in the light of the past, and of an analysis of it focused on the criminal activities which took place in parallel with other major historical and political events, how the current developments of organized crime, which still occupy a prominent place in South-Eastern Europe are also a consequence of past developments and mistakes. While foreign dominations and abuses during the past fostered the recourse to criminal activities, even as ways of survival in certain cases, the wars which broke out in the 1990s saw their major expansion and biggest profits. The Yugoslav wars, first, and the Kosovo and Macedonian conflicts, later, will, thus, be analyzed as the events, together with the process of economic and political transition which followed, which mostly contributed to the expansion of the phenomenon. While the international community was facing major historical events, from the fall of the Berlin Wall, to the creation of the European Community, violent conflicts arose in a country which had peacefully existed for more than fifty years. The responses given by states and international organizations, from the lifting of economic sanctions to military interventions, had the immediate result of creating a parallel illicit system of smuggling channels and criminal links, which came to the surface only years later.
When the wars came to an end, in certain cases, paradoxically, also thanks to the activity of criminal organizations, a reversal of the social pyramid had already taken place. Often closely connected to the political elites, common criminals experienced an upward mobility and were held as national heroes, blurring the distinction between legality and illegality, which will have dangerous consequences in the building of new, democratic states.
Inserted today in a global context, this analysis will not strictly involve only the countries of the region, but also the criminal links developed with other parts of the world, which currently have a non-negligible influence in particular on Western Europe.
While starting from Ottoman times, the research will reach our time and the most recent developments of organized crime in the region. Adding to the Balkan Route established in the 1980s for the smuggling of heroin which is still today very lucrative, another Balkan Route has been very recently identified linking Middle East and African migrants who desperately try to reach Western Europe. Deeply rooted in the territory and counting on trusted networks, Balkan-based organized criminal groups are trying to exploit the situation to the best they can. Thanks to the analysis of very contemporary developments, often not extensively covered by media, the research is to a large extent up-to date.
Being a constantly changing phenomenon, however, which is very often properly understood long after it takes place, it can sometimes be hard to grasp in its entirety. The directions taken by the Balkan Route, indeed, might become outdated even in short periods, since organized criminal groups are endlessly looking for new ways of making illicit profits and safer ways of evading the laws.
The main difficulty of the research lied in looking for objective information, since data and statistics are rare and not always entirely reliable. Indeed, government documents can be politicized, omit certain information or even adjust certain numbers to serve their interest; researchers on organized crime often rely on informers and law enforcement agencies, without directly investigating the situation; official agencies and newspapers sometimes do not focus on the major problems concerning organized crime, but on those that capture the attention of the audience; news from different newspapers can sometimes be very different, or even contradict one another.
For what concerns the methodology employed during the research a huge variety of sources have been used and compared. As a matter of fact, the same interdisciplinarity of the topic and of its analysis implies a necessary recourse to very different sources: reports from researchers, governments or international organizations, online newspapers from different countries and in different languages, blogs and videos, European laws, international conventions and books on history, geography, criminology, economics and social sciences have been consulted.
Authors who analyzed the geographical and historical characteristics of South-Eastern Europe, but also the discussed origins of the name “Balkans”, as the region is also known, have been referred to for a general overview on it; researches made by criminologists and international conventions have been used for a general introduction on organized crime. By comparing books focusing on the history of the region and reports focusing on the developments of organized crime in the same historical period a complete historical background focusing on both elements emerged.
The research is largely based on reports prepared by international organizations, and mainly Europol, the Council of Europe and several agencies of the United Nations, which have been particularly useful to discover the nature of the criminal activities most widespread in the region, while providing also fundamental data and statistics. While they all asserted the existence of a Balkan Route for the transit of drugs, online newspapers from different countries, documentaries and investigative reports were necessary to follow the directions it took and the most recent developments organized crime is taking in the region.


Table of contents

An Overview
   South-Eastern Europe or the Balkans
   Organized Crime
   Organized Crime in South-Eastern Europe .
The Roots
   A Remote History of Banditry
   Contemporary History
   The Yugoslav Wars
   The Bosnian War
      The Beginning of the War
      The End of the War and its Aftermath
   The Rest of the Region
      Serbia and Montenegro
      Albania and Kosovo
      Bulgaria, Romania, and Macedonia
   The Economic and Political Transition
The Balkan Route
   The Balkan Route of Drugs: Heroin
   The Balkan Route of Drugs: Cocaine
      The “Adriatic Connection”
   The Balkan Route of Human Trafficking
   The Balkan Route of Illegal Migration
Online Sources
Author’s Biography


The initiative of:
University of Bologna, Vytautas Magnus at Kaunas, Corvinus of Budapest and St. Petersburg State University, together with University of Ljubljana and University of Zagreb

In collaboration with:
MIREES Alumni International Association (MAiA)
Institute for Central-Eastern and Balkan Europe (IECOB)

Selection coordinated by:
MIREES Faculty Academic Council

Editorial coordination by:
Prof. Francesco Privitera, MIREES Programme Director
Adriano Remiddi, President of the MAiA Executive Board
Giovanni Cadioli, MAiA Editorial Manager
Luciana Moretti, IECOB Editorial Assistant


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