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Observatory of Illicit Economies in South Eastern Europe


Summary highlights

  1. Security threat: How criminals exploit Kosovo’s political challenges.

    Despite three attempts to become a member, Kosovo is not part of INTERPOL due to its strained relations with Serbia. Kosovo has been criticized for insufficient efforts to combat transnational organized crime, but is partly hampered by a lack of access to information and joint operations facilitated by such international and regional law enforcement bodies. As criminal organizations often seek safe havens in countries with weak law enforcement, strengthening the country’s capacity to enforce the law and act quickly to deal with cross-border crime could help curb criminality in the region.

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  2. Have any lessons been learned to cope with a new wave of migration through the Western Balkans?

    The number of refugees and migrants travelling through the Western Balkans is the highest since 2015. Compared to seven years ago, new patterns are emerging in the smuggling of migrants through the Balkan route: networks appear to have become more fluid and decentralized, partly through the use of technology, and the profile of smugglers appears to have changed, with the market becoming more international. Efforts to stem migration from concerned Western Balkan and EU countries, together with international partners, should focus on mitigating the push factors that lead migrants to risk their lives in search of better opportunities.

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  3. Montenegro’s bid for crypto kudos heralds risks.

    Montenegro has tried to position itself as a crypto haven. Developing the country into a crypto hub could create opportunities, but without sufficient regulation, there are serious and multifaceted risks. Nothing highlights this more than the ongoing political fallout from the arrest of crypto entrepreneur Do Kwon, wanted by the US and South Korea for fraud, at Podgorica airport in March this year. If Montenegro is to embrace cryptocurrency, it will need to develop a strong and tailored regulatory framework, as well as sufficient expertise in financial intelligence, cross-border cooperation and money laundering risk assessments.

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  4. Risks in prisons may disrupt crime-fighting in the Western Balkans.

    The Western Balkans have relatively high prison population rates compared to other parts of Europe. In theory, prisons should be correctional facilities and the last stop on the escalator of crime. In reality, they are too often finishing schools for recruiting petty criminals into serious organized crime, nodes for networking and even backrooms for running criminal operations. Without reform, there is a risk of prisons in the Western Balkans worsening rather than helping to correct the problem of serious organized crime in the region.

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  5. A big bird in a small flock: Crime at Belgrade airport.

    Nikola Tesla in Belgrade is one of the busiest airports in the Western Balkans. However, Belgrade’s location on key trafficking routes makes it vulnerable to trafficking, smuggling and irregular migration. This article assesses the current situation and risks of illicit activity through this key hub. More vigilance is needed to prevent smuggling by passengers and cargo, as well as corruption among airport staff. Inadequate staff training and insider corruption have often proved to be the weakest link in airport security.

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  6. What does the assassination of a Bulgarian mobster in Cape Town tell us about Balkan criminals in South Africa?

    In May 2023, Krasimir Kamenov, a notorious Bulgarian mobster, was killed along with his wife at their home in Cape Town, South Africa. His violent death is just the latest in a string of murders and arrests of Bulgarian and Serbian citizens engaged in illicit activity in South Africa. The country is seen as a lucrative environment for criminal activity, with offenders counting on a relatively high level of impunity. The presence of criminal actors from South Eastern Europe in South Africa underscores the need for a comprehensive and collaborative approach to addressing the security threats they pose.

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About this issue

On 24 September 2023, a group of armed men including Milan Radoičić, then vice president of the Serb List party, carried out a deadly attack near the village of Banjska in northern Kosovo. Radoičić was later arrested in Serbia, but the authorities there refused to extradite him as Serbia does not recognize Kosovo. This is just the latest in a series of cases highlighting the obstacles to tackling organized crime resulting from poor law enforcement cooperation between Kosovo and some of its neighbours. In this issue of the Risk Bulletin of Illicit Economies in South Eastern Europe, we look at the history and consequences of this problem.

Another current issue in the news is the large numbers of desperate refugees and migrants attempting to move through the Mediterranean region, particularly from the Middle East, North Africa and Afghanistan. While much of the focus has been on Lampedusa, there is also a growing challenge in the Western Balkans. The scenes are reminiscent of the large influx of people on the move in 2015, but some of the modalities and profiles of the smugglers have changed and the business appears to be becoming more violent.

The conviction of the founder of cryptocurrency company FTX, Sam Bankman-Fried, in November 2023 has shone a spotlight on the lack of integrity of cryptocurrencies, but it has not stopped some countries, such as Montenegro, from profiling themselves as possible crypto havens. Indeed, the country appears to be a magnet for some of the bigger names in the industry. In 2022, the Montenegrin government granted citizenship to Vitalik Buterin, the co-founder of the Ethereum blockchain. In July 2023, the Central Bank of Montenegro held talks with US crypto firm Ripple about developing a central bank digital currency or national stablecoin. In March this year, disgraced crypto entrepreneur Do Kwon, a man wanted by the US and South Korea for fraud, was arrested at Montenegro’s airport.

According to the latest iteration of the Global Organized Crime Index, published in September 2023, three of the six countries in the Western Balkans rank among the worst 10 in Europe for criminality. Four of the six countries in the region have incarceration rates that are above the European median. However, there is a risk that some prisons are incubators for the recruitment of petty criminals into organized criminal groups, and there are problems of corruption.

In May 2023, the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime published the report ‘Catch me if you can: Illicit flows through Balkan airports’. To give readers a taste of some of the report’s findings, in this issue we explore the risks of trafficking through one of the largest and busiest airports in the region, the Nikola Tesla airport in Belgrade.

We also continue to monitor the activities of criminal groups from South Eastern Europe outside the region. In this issue, we analyze what the assassination of a notorious Bulgarian mobster reveals about the activities of Bulgarian and Serbian criminal actors in South Africa.

We welcome 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.