On breaking down silos, and ‘untouchables’: the Balkan Criminology network

Dr Anna-Maria Getoš Kalac, founder and co-chair of Balkan Criminology, and associate professor at the University of Zagreb’s Faculty of Law, talks about strengthening networks and breaking down silos between academics, civil society, the media and criminal justice practitioners in the Western Balkans, and about the role of academia in fighting corruption.

Can you tell us about the Balkan Criminology platform: why is it needed and what does it do?
When I finished my PhD at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Crime, Security and Law (in Freiburg, Germany), I looked for something similar in the Balkans. But most of the major criminology institutes in the former Yugoslavia were no longer active. So I tried to link up with like-minded peers in South Eastern Europe – people in my field to share ideas and work with. I also figured that since organized crime is transnational, to study it we needed a transnational response in the research community. Around ten years ago, I began searching for at least one meaningful contact in each Balkan country. And that was how Balkan Criminology started, as a network of young researchers. We did projects together, like mapping organized crime in the region, looking at victimology and investigating the situation in prisons. We met whenever possible for conferences, workshops and seminars. I think it helped that we had a different mindset from the older generation: we were not so interested in the region’s recent history or in issues of ethnicity. We came together as researchers, academics, public prosecutors and people from civil society who wanted to learn from one another.

How do you explain the fact, or at least the perception, that there is a high incidence of organized crime in the Western Balkans but almost no research about it emanating from the region?
In academia there is a strong focus on publishing. Most of the respected international criminology journals are published in English. This is a handicap for people from the Western Balkans who do not write well in English or cannot afford an editor. So, even if the few criminology experts from the region have good data, they seldom have the opportunity to publish it. Researchers from outside the region tend to publish, but often without their own empirical knowledge or a good understanding of the local situation. In between are the NGOs: they are rarely criminologists and are not held to the same publication standards as academics. But they know the region, have the possibility to publish in-house and have sufficient resources since they can draw on donor money. They do not rely solely on public funding, like universities.

Someone once described criminals from the Western Balkans as still operating in a ‘Yugosphere’. When analyzing organized crime, do you consider the Balkans as a single criminological space?
Absolutely. The region is a sui generis criminal space, in that countries of the region have similar histories, legal frameworks and criminal markets. There are certainly common factors that distinguish the region from a sociological and criminological perspective. Unfortunately, for this reason the term ‘Balkan’ is often used pejoratively.

What are some of the challenges in bringing together people from different countries and disciplines who are studying and analyzing organized crime in the Western Balkans?
The main challenge to bringing people from the region together is a lack of resources. There are almost no other barriers. Even though there are relatively few academics, investigative journalists and people from civil society in the region who focus on organized crime and corruption, they seldom get to meet. That is why, every year since 2014 – thanks to the Max Planck Institute and now the GI-TOC Resilience Fund – Balkan Criminology has organized a one-week course in Dubrovnik on crime research in the Balkans. In the Balkans, there is a strong tradition of people relying on personal contacts and networks. The same approach should apply to researchers working on organized crime and corruption. That is why this annual meeting is so important: to break down silos, make new contacts, learn from each other and meet informally.

Can you tell us about some of the challenges that you have faced in Croatia in terms of public research funding.
Corruption and the connections that dictate so much of the way things work in our region also affect whether your project receives public funding. We also face difficulties in applying for and administering research grants from abroad. In many cases, the processes are more cumbersome than our limited human resources can handle.

How would you characterize the situation of organized crime in the Western Balkans?
Criminal markets or groups in the Western Balkans are no more significant than those in other parts of the world. The biggest problem here is the impact of organized crime on the state. There are key businessmen who have close links to politicians and officials in the security sector. These people wield influence and power – I call them ‘untouchables’. This type of organized corruption is the biggest threat to stability and governance in the Balkans.

How do you get more young researchers in the Western Balkans interested in studying organized crime? And how can education help to impart a culture of lawfulness and integrity?
The key is to develop a new generation of researchers and to bring them together through platforms like Balkan Criminology. We also need more inter-disciplinary contacts and joint projects. As for teaching a culture of lawfulness, I think you can make a difference at the university level, for example in the law faculty. But I am under no illusions: there are limits to what we can do if the whole system is corrupt.

The Balkan Criminology network, established in 2013, is designed to build resilience to organized crime and criminal state capture in South Eastern Europe. Supported by the GI-TOC Resilience Fund, the network brings together academics, journalists, criminal-justice professionals and NGOs engaged in the struggle against organized crime in the Balkans.