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Transnational Organized Crime and Security 101: Organized Crime in Eastern Europe and Balkans


Transnational Organized Crime (TOC) continues to be an issue near the top of the international agenda. While crime has always been an issue, criminal organizations have developed increasingly sophisticated methods. Such international crime can be a threat to the peace and stability of even the most developed countries. The newest technologies have many such crimes even less restricted by borders. The Transnational Organized Crime and Security 101 series aims to analyze the different forms of organized crime and the mode of operation of different organized groups. This series will further explore the similarities and differences between Transnational Organized Criminal groups.

The Transnational Organized Crime and Security 101 series is divided into the following six chapters:

6. Transnational Organized Crime and Security 101: Organized Crime in Eastern Europe and Balkans

Transnational Organized Crime and Security 101: Organized Crime in Eastern Europe and Balkans

Eastern Europe and the Balkans have struggled with organized crime for a long time. The Balkans are situated at a major intersection between East and West, Europe and Asia, and Europe and the Mediterranean. The subject of organized crime in the Balkans has only become concerning in the last few decades of the 20th century, despite similar activities occurring for millennia (Krasniqi, 2016). The region is a major hub for criminal activities like human trafficking, drug trafficking, money laundering, and the smuggling of illegal commodities – according to a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Political unrest, economic hardship, and lax law enforcement are just a few of the elements that have allowed these criminal networks to flourish in the area (UNODC, 2020).

Europe can be located at either end of the trafficking routes that cross the globe; it serves as both a source and a destination for illegal goods that are transported between continents (K. V. Lampe, 2014). But most often, Europe is considered a significant consumer market. This is especially true of illegal narcotics, such as heroin from Central Asia and cocaine from South America. Other than illegal drugs, Europe is a major market for protected cultural objects, protected wildlife, and knockoffs of name-brand commodities, including software, cigarettes, and pharmaceuticals (K. V. Lampe, 2014). Most of the time, transnational organized crime in Europe is seen as a representation of the socioeconomic divide between Western Europe and the former Soviet Union and Balkan nations (K. V. Lampe, 2014). Some international crimes are, in fact, somewhat characterized by an East-West axis. For instance, similar to other forms of predatory crimes like cross-border serial burglary, where Eastern European criminal organizations operate in Western Europe, the trafficking of stolen vehicles often occurs from Western Europe to Eastern Europe (K. V. Lampe, 2008).

Figure 1: Balkan cartel trafficking cocaine from South America to the EU dismantled by Europol

There are several reasons for the high rate of organized crime in the Balkans. A major reason for the popularity of organized crime in the Balkans is the geographic location. Shortcuts that go via the peninsula connect Europe with the Middle East and Asia because of its geographic location (Krasniqi, 2016). More than any other historical, cultural, or national element, the "Balkan Route" has been utilized to smuggle people and other items from Asia and the Middle East to Europe and vice versa. The so-called "Balkan route" is one of the primary routes used for drug trafficking from Turkey and other Asian nations to Europe. The "Balkan route" allegedly became more and more popular throughout the 1970s (Krasniqi, 2016).

After 10 years, this route has developed into one of the most significant venues for smuggling drugs and human beings into Europe, due to the geopolitical advantages of the Balkans (Krasniqi, 2016). The triangle border region between Kosovo, northern Macedonia, and southern Serbia is unsurprising, some of the most popular routes are those used for other types of trafficking, like drugs and firearms (Kemp, 2017). The demand for "facilitators" (smugglers) who provide fraudulent paperwork, serve as guides and scouts, offer transportation, lodging, and tickets, and bribe border guards has surged along the Balkan route (Kemp, 2017). It is important to note that many of these facilitators engage in poly criminality, or are involved in multiple types of criminal activity, including drug trafficking (15%), human trafficking (20%), and property crime (Kemp, 2017). The Western Balkan route continues to be the busiest migration route into Europe, with an increase in arrivals at the continent's external borders. In the final ten months of this year, 22,300 irregular entries through the Western Balkan route were discovered. The amount is quadruple what it was in 2021 and is the largest since 2015 (ECRC, 2022). According to European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex), "A large number of irregular border crossings can be linked to both those abusing visa-free access to the Western Balkans as well as migrants making repeated efforts to enter the border." Some immigrants travel to the EU's external borders using visa-free routes through Belgrade Airport (ECRC, 2022).

Figure 2: Syrian Refugees And Others Are Still Making Their Way Slowly Across Europe Through the Balkan Route

Weak border controls make the Balkans susceptible to organized crime (Juncos, 2012). A combination of the terrain and insufficient or dishonest border and customs officials are to blame for this. The majority of Balkan nations do not require visas for travel (Juncos, 2012). Although borders were not yet physically closed in 2019, police continued to exert intense control over them and deploy violence as a deterrent (Juncos, 2012). Many of them refer to particular border crossings and highlight the negative effects of inefficient infrastructure and tools at border crossings (Juncos, 2012).

Another reason is a collaboration between organized crime groups. Collaboration among criminal organizations in the Balkans without networking and coordination with the Balkans is common (Krasniqi, 2016). These organizations – which are spreading throughout the Balkans and growing increasingly criminally adept – are distinguished by their capacity to cooperate and successfully adjust to any new social situation to carry out their criminal objectives (Krasniqi, 2016). Despite their forceful but formal nationalistic rhetoric, these criminal organizations have always collaborated on drug trafficking, human trafficking, the smuggling of stolen automobiles, cigarettes, guns, fuel, and money laundering (Krasniqi, 2016).

Figure 3: High Profile Albanian Underworld Figure

Challenges in Combating Organized Crime in the Balkans

Without political will, institutional resolve, and a fundamental grasp of the problem, the fight against organized crime cannot be successful. The several Balkan countries engaged in this conflict confront difficulties and challenges of various kinds, including; the state authorities' reluctance in the majority of Balkan nations, some criminals had a history of violence or had participated in the resistance movement against the communist government (Krasniqi, 2016). In their respective countries, these individuals were hero-worshipped for defending the state, freedom, and democracy (Krasniqi, 2016). Whether they were charged with a crime or caught in the act, these individuals often got only symbolic punishment, despite the fact that several of them were actively participating in illegal conduct. In other cases, official institutions have frequently refrained from taking on organized crime due to a variety of risks, a lack of motivation brought on by societal unrest or low wages, an unpredictable work environment, or a combination of these factors (Binder, 2002). Political or familial ties, rather than their real professional principles, have elevated some of the authorities who have acted in this way. In certain Balkan countries, interference in the internal affairs of the police and the court system has significantly increased as a result of their vulnerability to pressure and intimidation (Binder, 2002). Even if they wished to stop the new cross-border trafficking, law enforcement agencies were chronically lacking in cutting-edge tools and equipment, such as sniffer dogs, x-ray machines, and, in Albania as recently as 2001, flashlights and handcuffs. This gave the criminal elements an advantage (Binder, 2002).

The corruption-related official involvement in criminal activity and political or official structures' involvement in criminal activity are further challenges. Governmental institutions in various Balkan nations have failed to effectively combat organized crime (Krasniqi, 2016). More than any other element, this phenomenon has been impacting the growth of organized scientific crime, organized economic crime, and ware piracy in the majority of the Balkan states (Noonan et al., 2022). Corruption is either becoming worse or remaining stagnant in Eastern European nations. The effectiveness of anti-corruption efforts varies significantly across the European Union (EU), with considerable disparities in some EU Member States (Noonan et al., 2022). The rule of law is undermined by corruption, which also weakens institutions and impedes economic growth. More effective coordination and action at the EU level can augment national criminal justice and law enforcement capacities by utilizing all rules and tools of EU primary and secondary law (Noonan et al., 2022).

Figure 4: Gabriel Escobar Naming the Most Corrupt State in the Balkans.

Lastly, institutions at home and abroad don't cooperate and aren't transparent enough. In some instances, the lack of collaboration between national and international institutions, particularly the issue of inadequate transparency in the work of the international institutions in Kosovo and Bosnia, has also shown to be an obstacle to the successful completion of their primary mission. The primary mission is to combat organized crime (Krasniqi, 2016). These events have helped to foster a culture of suspicion and a setting where local and international agencies in Kosovo and Bosnia accuse one another of making errors or failing to effectively combat organized crime and corruption (Krasniqi, 2016).

Cooperative Initiatives and Mechanisms

These developments have stimulated cooperation and coordination among the countries in Eastern Europe to strengthen freedom, democracy, and security in the region. Fighting the region’s security threats – terrorism and organized crime in particular – has strengthened diplomatic, political, and military relations between Eastern Europe countries, improved intelligence sharing, and intensive cross-border police, and judicial cooperation (Matei, 2009). Cooperation includes gatherings of regional political and military leaders, joint education and training programs aimed at preventing and combating terrorism and organized crime, and coordinated efforts by public prosecutors, intelligence, and law enforcement officials in the region to secure borders, apprehend suspects in terrorism and/or organized crime, dismantle organizations connected to these crimes, and freeze or seize assets (Matei, 2009). Along with their allies and partners, Eastern Europe nations have cooperated in the battle against terrorism (Matei, 2009). The likelihood of joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU) – status coveted by the majority of former communist nations in Europe has sped up Eastern Europe's regional cooperation. Members of the EU and NATO have evidently shown democratic maturity and advanced security capabilities, they also have requirements and benefits of membership in the two organizations that have sped up regional cooperation efforts (Matei, 2009).

Figure 5: American soldiers under NATO command on patrol in northern Kosovo.

After 1989, NATO and the EU concentrated on enlarging the area of peace and stability in Europe by welcoming new members. They helped candidate and non-candidate nations strengthen their democracies and boost their security capacities through a variety of programs, partnerships, and/or membership requirements. These programs aimed at post-conflict development and reconstruction, reform of security and defense institutions, and bringing Eastern Europe countries closer to the West. Using these initiatives, the two organizations have compelled candidate nations to fortify their bilateral and trilateral ties, solidify their ties with their neighbors, and take part in several regional and subregional cooperative security groups (Binder, 2002). Some Balkan nations continue to deny that organized crime has infiltrated their borders. Slovenia, for instance, claims to be a member of a regional organization that fights crime, but the nation has not yet admitted that organized crime exists there (Binder, 2002). In other words, integration between the two institutions has always required regional and subregional cooperation (Matei, 2009).

In conclusion, organized crime is still a significant issue throughout Eastern Europe and the Balkans. The area is a significant source and transit area for the trafficking of people, drugs, and money. Major reasons for the success of organized crime in this area include convenient geographical location, weak border control, and collaboration between organized crime groups. No matter how vigilant and eager to work together the East European nations are, terrorist and organized crime networks appear to be one step ahead of any regional joint efforts. Despite the numerous efforts made to counter it, the international cooperation of law enforcement authorities could not keep up with the international cooperation of criminals, which was always a step ahead of the law. To completely eradicate both terrorism and organized crime, Eastern Europe countries must therefore continue to cooperate vigorously and more effectively, particularly at the operational level. Most surprising is regional cooperation between organized criminal groups. Regional cooperation has not been hindered in the Balkans by bloodshed during historical political conflicts, strict visa requirements, strict border controls, or high customs barriers. This means that rather than acting as enablers for preventing and combating organized crime, political disputes and state boundaries in the Balkans have acted as barriers to developing effective regional collaboration in the fight against organized crime and other types of criminal activity.

Bibliographic References

Balkan Route: Attempts to Reach EU Continue as the Council Seeks to Expand Frontex Presence in the Region, Croatia Closer to Schengen Amid Continued Violations, Trilateral Agreement to Increase Border Control | European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE). (2022).

Juncos, A. E. (2012). The EU and Border Management in the Western Balkans: Preparing for European Integration or Safeguarding EU External Borders?

Kemp, W. K. (2017). Crooked Kaleidoscope Organized Crime in the Balkans.

Krasniqi, iur. K. K. (2016). Organized Crime In The Balkans.

Lampe, K. V. (2014). Transnational Organized Crime in Europe.

Lampe, K. von. (2008). Organized Crime in Europe: Conceptions and Realities.

Noonan, E., Borcea, D. E., & Capabilities Unit, S. F. and. (2022). Organised crime in Europe: Emerging trends and policy challenges.


Binder, D. (2002) Organized Crime in the Balkans. Wilson Center.

UNODC. (2020). Transnational Organized Crime in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Vienna: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Image Sources

Cover Photo: Sergi, A. (n.d.). Albanian mafia: the dangerous myth that distorts our view of the global drugs trade. The Conversation.

Figure 1: Balkan cartel trafficking cocaine from South America to the EU dismantled | Europol. (n.d.). Europol.

Figure 2: Galea, S. (2021, April 24). Europe’s migrant crisis: what the EU is forgetting. Fortune.

Figure 3: Admin, A. (2022, February 23). Sëmuret Emiljano Shullazi, del nga burgu - Telegraf Albania. Telegraf Albania.

Figure 4: Imkadmin, I. (2022, April 10). The most corrupt state in the Balkans? Gabriel Escobar reveals the name. IMK - InfoMedia Kosova.

Figure 5: Surk, B. (2017, March 20). Russia Stirs Friction in Balkans, as NATO Keeps an Uneasy Peace. The New York Times.


Author Photo

Edikan Victoria Inemeh-Etete

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