IISS, trafficking and stereotypes about the Wild Balkans

As numerous European leaders are looking for excuses to slow down the EU accession path of Western Balkan nations it becomes all the more important to be extremely precise when it comes to describing the problems of the region. How not to do it can be seen by looking at a recent publication by the respected IISS (International Institute of Strategic Studies).

A recent short “comment” under the sensationalist title Balkan crime jeopardises EU accession hopes notes

“Recent evidence of the depth and scale of criminal and corrupt activities have bolstered the arguments of those who believe that these countries have a long way to go before they can accede to the EU, and that any attempt to accelerate their accession would be mistaken.”

Then the tone of the paper is set with an opening quote from a 2003 EU document, including references to failed states, drugs, weapons and even terrorism (!):

“Organised crime is routinely listed by the EU and other bodies and governments in their assessments of security threats. The European Security Strategy developed by the EU in 2003, for example, said Europe was a prime target for organised crime which was ‘often associated with weak or failing states’. ‘This internal threat to our security’, it said, ‘has an important external dimension: cross-border trafficking in drugs, women, illegal migrants and weapons accounts for a large part of the activities of criminal gangs. It can have links with terrorism … All these activities undermine both the rule of law and social order itself. In extreme cases, organised crime can come to dominate the state.’ The strategy document also noted that most of the heroin coming to Europe from Afghanistan was distributed through Balkan criminal networks which ‘are also responsible for some 200,000 of the 700,000 women victims of the sex trade world-wide’.”

And the policy implication from all this is also spelt out in the conclusion:

“Regional efforts to rid the Balkans of their criminal networks come as expectations grow that Germany and other countries will demand ever-stricter criteria for countries wishing to join the EU after Croatia, which, if it resolves outstanding issues with the Yugoslav war-crimes tribunal in The Hague, could be admitted in 2012 or 2013. The remaining countries of the region, however, have so much to do in terms of preparation, including tackling crime and improving judicial governance, that no other Balkan country can realistically be expected to join before 2020. Dealing with the issue of organised crime and corruption is a constant refrain from all concerned. Those sceptical of early EU enlargement to include the western Balkans often claim that Romania and Bulgaria were admitted to the EU before their institutions, including justice and policing, were ready. The recent revelations have given such critics ammunition to argue that the mistake must not be made again.” (emphasis added by me)

In fact, as described in a recent ECFR paper, there are very good reasons, which have nothing to do with state failure or crime, why no Balkan country is likely to join the EU before 2020.

The quality of research behind this briefing is also made clear by the fact that the text leaves uncommented its own reference to “200,000 women victims of the sex trade”.

This number was always an imaginary figure: it was never (not even in 2003) based on any empirical evidence. But ironically, the IISS briefing appears shortly after another institution, the US State Departement, published its own annual assessment of the trafficking situation, confirming a positive trend in the Balkans that has been ongoing for years.

Now, what can one learn from the latest State Department Trafficking Report 2010? The best performing countries in the world when it comes to fighting trafficking are included in category 1. This means “countries whose governments fully comply with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) minimum standards.” And this includes not only most EU members but also BiH and Croatia!

Category 2, on the other hand, includes countries facing problems, such as Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Turkey. But it is worth putting this in context: in this category (2) we also find 10 EU member states, including Cyprus, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Malta, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia and Bulgaria.

It is also worth noting that “most of the heroin coming to Europe from Afghanistan” quite probably first has to cross Turkey (an EU candidate state and Nato member) as well as EU members Greece, Bulgaria and Romania to even get to the Western Balkans. Smugglers then still have to cross the external Schengen borders in Slovenia or Hungary as well. This is hardly a Western Balkan problem, it is an international one, and Italians, Turks, Colombians, Afghans, Russians and Ukrainians are as likely to be involved as Albanians or Serbs.

The concrete and recent evidence IISS offers in this short brief is of a successful Serbian police operation in cooperation with other law enforcement bodies against an international drug smuggling group. In fact, the whole brief suggests that there is growing and improving regional cooperation in successfully fighting crime.

It is banal to say that there is organised crime in the Balkans. It exists, as indeed it does in any other country of Europe. It is also banal to note that the situation today is very different (and much better) than in the 1990s. The real policy question is whether institutions in the region are building their capacity to fight it in cooperation with their counterparts in EU countries. In this light, one can read the following IISS observation rather differently:

“In January, the Serbian and Italian police arrested 33 people for cocaine trafficking, amongst whom were not only Serbs, Montenegrins and Albanians, but also Italians and Colombians. According to some reports, the seizure of the Maui followed the tracking in April 2009 of a shipment of drugs from Argentina to the Greek port of Thessalonika, where a Greek prosecutor did not allow the ship to be searched after he was provided with papers to prove that it had been checked on leaving Argentina.”

Here a ship (the Maui) goes from Argentina to Greece, and an international ring including Balkan citizens is exposed as a result of international police cooperation involving also Balkan police forces. Why this should be held against Western Balkan aspirations to begin accession talks is never explained.

By all means, let us be critical where efforts to fight organised crime fall short in the Balkans. But serious institutions such as IISS should not engage in sloppy arguments, based on outdated facts, and spiced up by prejudice.

For more please read: U.S. Department of State: Trafficking in Persons Report 2010

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