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Observatory of Illicit Economies in South Eastern Europe


Summary highlights

  1. Serbia’s controversial draft law on policing has shortcomings for combating organized crime.

    In December 2022, the Serbian government’s proposals to regulate policing in the country caused a public outcry over potential threats to citizens’ rights and the further politicization of police work. As a result, the government is holding public consultations with civil society and police unions to revise the draft legislation. With increased power given to the interior minister, the proposed law also contains some setbacks for the fight against organized crime. Efforts to redraft the legislation should therefore be welcomed.

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  2. Smuggling of antiquities threatens North Macedonia’s cultural heritage.

    North Macedonia’s geographic position at the crossroads of historical civilizations makes it an attractive destination for people seeking to steal and traffic artefacts from archaeological sites. Organized groups operating in North Macedonia are believed to have connections with foreign dealers who sell the stolen items on European black markets and abroad. Several incidents over the past decade demonstrate the threat posed to the country’s rich cultural heritage by illicit trafficking in cultural property. Greater public awareness and international cooperation are essential for disrupting the trade.

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  3. Indoor cannabis cultivation is a growing industry in Kosovo.

    Before 2019, indoor cannabis cultivation in Kosovo was rare and primarily destined for personal use. However, in the past three years there has been an increase in large-scale cannabis cultivation in laboratories – most of which is destined for foreign markets. Through an analysis of primary data and interviews with key officials and experts, this article explores the reasons behind this increase, hotspots of cultivation and the profile of those arrested for this crime.

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  4. The Bosnian border town of Gradiška: a hotspot of organized crime and a gateway to the Schengen zone.

    Organized criminal groups are taking advantage of Croatia having joined the Schengen zone at the start of 2023 to move illicit goods from Bosnia and Herzegovina into the EU. As a result, the border town of Gradiška, in north-western Bosnia and Herzegovina, has become a hotspot of smuggling and trafficking in drugs, weapons and migrants. Intelligence sharing and joint operations with neighbouring countries are essential to combat this rising tide of criminality.

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  5. Unaccompanied minors are facing perilous journeys on the Western Balkan migration route to the EU.

    Unaccompanied children who travel to the EU via the Western Balkans are at high risk of becoming victims of human trafficking and of being sexually exploited. Growing numbers of unaccompanied minors travelling on the Balkan route, particularly young boys from Afghanistan, have only exacerbated the issue. Better communication and coordination between law enforcement agencies and organizations working in migrant camps is needed to safeguard children on the move.

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  6. Albanian organized crime groups have become key players in Italy’s criminal landscape, prompting targeted operations from authorities.

    Albanian criminal groups in Italy have evolved from small-time criminals to significant players in certain illicit economies, such as cocaine and cannabis trafficking. These groups have expanded their area of operations from large cities such as Rome to smaller towns and rural communities, particularly in the north of the country. They have legitimized their role as equal partners of the traditional Italian mafia, leading law enforcement in the country to increasingly focus their operations on these mafia-style groups from Albania.

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About this issue

The Risk Bulletin produced by the Observatory of Illicit Economies in South Eastern Europe of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime usually provides insights into current high-profile organized crime issues. The 15th issue instead focuses on organized crime developments in the region that have attracted less public attention but are equally in need of monitoring.

First, we turn to Serbia, where a new government proposal to regulate policing has been met with public backlash. The draft policing law is not only seen as a potential threat to citizens’ rights, but it also contains several shortcomings for countering organized crime. As the government convenes public consultations with civil society and police unions to redraft the law, it remains to be seen whether the new policing regulation will help the country achieve the recommendations set out by the European Commission.

Two criminal markets that receive little attention in the Western Balkans are the smuggling of antiquities and indoor cannabis cultivation. The second and third articles shed light on these issues, exploring how the smuggling of antiquities threatens North Macedonia’s cultural heritage and examining the reasons behind the increase in indoor cannabis growth in Kosovo.

Continuing our focus on hotspots of illicit economies in South Eastern Europe, we look at the Bosnian town of Gradiška, which lies near the border with Croatia. Although the town has long been a hub for smuggling, it seems to have become a gateway for smugglers wanting to access EU markets ever since Croatia joined the Schengen zone in early 2023.

Another risk that receives little attention is the plight of children moving along the Balkan route towards the EU, many of whom are fleeing human rights abuses in their home countries. This is compounded by risks of exploitation during their journey. Their stories are seldom heard because they are afraid to come forward for fear of reprisals or of being sent home.

A recurrent aim of this Risk Bulletin is to monitor the activities of Western Balkan criminal groups operating outside the region. The final article in this issue profiles the rise of the Italo-Albanian mafia, criminal groups that have permeated the Italian organized crime landscape.

As always, we are interested in your feedback and suggestions for new stories. If you would like to get in touch or if you have an idea for a story, please contact Vanja.Petrovic@globalinitiative.net.