Monday, August 11, 2008

Security concerns in the Southern Balkans

The Southern Balkan region has been characterized by a pervasion of organized crime syndicates over the past decades due to the dramatic political developments and their geographical placement close to Turkey and the Asian-European contraband routes. The state of FYR-Macedonia is situated on the traditional “Balkan axis” that is being used for the heroin transfer of heroin to Central Europe. Over the past few years there is also the emerging trend of hashish exports from the Albanian dominated areas of the country, to Turkey due to the formation of strong international contraband networks that facilitate such transportation to Istanbul which is one of the main consumption centers of this narcotic in Europe.

The main groups active in the country apart from the local ones, are Albanian, Bulgarian and Turkish ones.

The developments in FYR Macedonia are inexorable related to those in Kosovo. Thus the Kosovo-Albanian “15 families” which constitute the main core of the organized crime in Pristina are cooperating with their brethren in the other side of the borders and especially those residing in the Sar Mountains and Tetovo.

Moreover between the Kosovo cities of Pec, Priznen and the city of Bayram Kouri there is an almost daily connection referring to the illegal narcotics trade and the arms trade which is a main cause for alert for the international authorities because of the alleged existence of Islamic extremists that may want to take advantage of the market weaponry that has been created there.

Over the past 3 years a new phenomena has been observed by the international police authorities and that is the human trafficking from Kosovo to Greece via FYR Macedonia. It is estimated that smugglers charge 3,000 Euros per head in order to organize a transfer from Kosovo to Greece and they have formed an extensive network of collaborators including taxi drivers, small transport companies and corrupt border officials.

A Jane’s Intelligence Review report revealed that in May 2007 a group of 19 people were arrested in FYR Macedonia that were responsible for the transfer of more than 100 people and charged 5,000 Euros for the services per person including the forgery of an entrance visa and the transportation with a taxi for the whole ride. Furthermore an international security operation apprehended another 16 Croatians and 2 Bosnian citizens that were related with the previous group and they were responsible for managing the transportation of immigrants from the Central Balkan region.

It is estimated that in Skopje a nascent market for forged passports is being created. For instance in July 2007 17 Kosovo Albanian immigrants were arrested carrying fake Swedish passports on their way to that country, which they bought for approximately 4,000 Euros.

EUROPOL estimates that in FYR Macedonia there are at least 200,000 illegal hand guns and rifles in the hands of the citizens and there is a booming weapons market, albeit mostly for exports to neighboring countries. In December 2007 a Greek was arrested because he was carrying illegally purchased weapons in his specially designed automobile crypt. In general there is a strong demand for handguns in Greece that until recently that was met by Southern Albania, although that seems to be overtaken by the FYR Macedonian market. A very notable example for the above was the attack against the American Embassy in Athens in January 2007.

According to the Greek media at that time who took their information from the Athens police; the RPG rocket that hit the Embassy was bought most probably from Tetovo for as little as 2,000 Euro including the rocket launcher. A team of the Greek anti-terrorist unit allegedly ventured there in coordination with the FBI, but no other data were made available to the public and no arrests have been made until now.

Cigarette smuggling is a traditional organized crime activity with an annual yield of at least 100 million Euros of illegally exported cigarettes, mostly to Greece and Serbia. Although it is difficult to speculate without concrete evidence; there is a prevalent attitude amongst members of the European police authorities that the groups involved in this activity have the backing of influential public officers in the country that profit through this kind of activity.

On the other hand, tobacco smuggling seems less threatening that drugs and weapons, therefore it is safe to assume that this kind of activity will continue well into the future in order for the authorities to be able to contain the reach of the organized crime groups. It is a shared knowledge for analysts that the different kinds of illegal goods (Tobacco, narcotics, weapons, trafficking, etc) are being exploited by the same criminal syndicates and in most cases they are being transferred via the same paths and routes. Therefore when one expands the other tends to decrease, and in essence the battle against organized crime is a far more complicated procedure than it appears at first glance. In FYR Macedonia the existence of multitude social inequalities and unemployment, coupled by low salaries (300 Euros per month average), tends to create an ideal scene on where human resources are recruited for this kind of operations. The parallel economy in the country runs around 100% in comparison to the legal one, therefore it is improbable to expect the eradication of these activities any time soon.

The past 2 years have witnessed a 40% increase in arrests related to organized crime activities in the country and the “internationalization” of the above, since the arrests include people from across the Balkans and beyond.

Another interesting recent development was the arrest of the Imam Bekir Halimi, by the authorities in Skopje due to his involvement in illegal funding by pro-terrorist organization. The Albanian descent Halimi received 2,115 euros payments from the Kuwaiti Organization "Revival Islamic Heritage Society" – RIHS-.

The Revival Islamic Heritage Society has been blacklisted by the United Nations “Because of their close ties to terrorist organizations, including Al Qaeda”, said the Interior Ministry's spokesperson, Ivo Kotevski. The money transfer through a swift account was done via Kuwaiti and two German banks eventually ending up on Halimi’s account.

RIHS has been accused of financing Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, as well as extremist groups in Pakistan, under the pretext of humanitarian care and since the 11th of January 2002 it was classified in the UN’s black list of international organizations.

The organization operated over the previous years in Kosovo, Bosnia and Albania, whilst it seems that it aimed at penetrating FYROM through Bekir Halimi’s actions. According to reliable information himself was under supervision by the local security agencies and he was also about to complete his work by importing into the country, radical Islamic figures from the Middle East.

It seems that he was a part of a larger plan of destabilization in the Southern Balkans.

Moreover there are indications of a recent strong interest by countries such as Italy, UK and Israel in the developments due to the nexus between extremists and organized crime networks in the country that covers a crucial geopolitical zone in the Balkans and it could be used as a springboard for the orchestration of attacks against European metropolises.

Organized crime remains a main concern for the authorities in Skopje. Islamic extremism illegal immigration and ethnic divisions are another three dimensions that contemplate the overall picture and are all interrelated due to the existence of strong interpersonal networks in this small country. Therefore any development should be analyzed through a wider prism and in a holistic approach and it should not be forgotten that the country’s placement as a transition route in the Balkans greatly affects its stability by decisions made by the global organized crime syndicates that are still very influential in the region.

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