Extortion is underestimated and under-reported in Serbia.

How big a problem are extortion and usury in Serbia? That is a question that Milos Katić, executive board president of the Independent Journalists’ Association of Vojvodina, set out to investigate in 2021 thanks to a scholarship from the GI-TOC’s Resilience Fund. Motivated by his personal experience in a small community, Katić analyzed institutional responses and citizens’ perceptions of extortion, racketeering and usury in Serbia. His findings were published in December 2021.1

The main difference between extortion and usury (also referred to as loan sharking) is that the perpetrator in extortion coerces the victim to illegally obtain property, while in usury, the victim seeks financial services from the perpetrator in the form of a loan and is then exploited. In Serbia’s criminal code, extortion is a criminal offence of a property nature. It implies the intention to illegally obtain property or other benefits by force or threat. The force can be direct or indirect, while the threat must be of such intensity as to create a feeling of fear. The perpetrator does not need to intend to personally receive this benefit; extortion could also be committed for someone else’s benefit.

According to Katić’s report, individuals generally extort relatively small sums of money from people who are in a difficult financial situation. For example, hooligan criminal groups that operate private security companies in Belgrade and Novi Sad often extort restaurants or clubs, asking for thousands of euros to ‘protect them’. ‘This is classic racketeering’, said Katić. ‘Owners pay for the protection even though they did not ask for it because it is the only way to work or not to damage their reputation.’

Based on his research, Katić concluded that extortion is widespread but underestimated in Serbia. ‘People in Serbia do not take extortion seriously until it knocks on their door. When that happens, they are not sure how to react’, said Katić. It is also a relatively unknown phenomenon. ‘People know more about racketeering and usury, perhaps because of television series and movies, but also because they know more victims or perpetrators,’ he explained.

In his study, he noticed a big difference between the number of cases reported and how citizens view these crimes. According to Katić, people believe that the Serbian legal system will not protect them, which is why ‘it is not surprising that most people are afraid to report extortion, racketeering and usury’.

He added: ‘For example, a person borrowed €500 000 and agreed on an interest rate. After some time, he could not return the amount, and the loan shark took away his hotel. The court procedure started, and the court expert reduced the value of the hotel to €1 million, which was not enough to repay the debt to the loan shark, who is always asking for more and more money. In the end, it turned out that the loan shark was working in an organized manner and that this was not the only hotel he took. He has a team of lawyers making contracts and has connections in the judiciary.’

Katić’s findings reveal that people in cities more often dare to report cases of extortion, especially when extorted by individuals rather than organized groups. On the other hand, fear is present in smaller communities because victims face the risk of running into the perpetrators. Figures 3 and 4 show that more than a third of all criminal complaints of extortion and usury in Serbia are made in the capital, Belgrade.

In the Western Balkans, the highest sentences for extortion are in Serbia and Montenegro, which provide for imprisonment of up to eight years. The lowest penalties are in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, where perpetrators face three-month prison sentences.

According to Katić, most racketeers are men, although women are also involved. Minors often carry out racketeering and extortion schemes. Betting shops are hubs for gatherings of victims and perpetrators, as well as the recruitment of minors, especially in cities.

The study concludes that closer cooperation between the media and civil society is needed because of the press’s sensationalist approach to the topic. ‘The press mainly reports on these cases when a tragic outcome occurs. A more professional approach is necessary. Professionals in cooperation with civil society and media need to prevent these crimes, and it is important to target young perpetrators. Education is key. Trust between civil society, the media and state institutions is the only solution to bring real results,’ noted Katić.


  1. Miloš Katić and Sanja Kosović, Extortion and Usury in Serbia between 2016 and 2020, GI-TOC, December 2021, https://voice.org.rs/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/Case-study-2021-1.pdf