The Fight against Organised Crime in the Western Balkans: The European Union’s Push and Pull

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By Bojan Elek, Senior Researcher at BCSP

All Western Balkan countries have, at least officially, committed to joining the European Union and promised to fight organised crime head-on, as one of the priority areas during their accession talks. The European Commission’s Country Reports have repeated ad nauseam that the key focus should be on having a track record in prosecuting organised crime with final convictions. At the same time, however, the Balkans remain at the centre of the global organised crime nexus, as evidenced by police discoveries related to cocaine smuggling in Europe and reports showing high levels of criminality and low societal resilience to crime.

Why are the Western Balkans failing to provide adequate responses to organised crime; and how is it possible for this all to take place despite international assistance and under the EU enlargement auditors’ detailed scrutiny? The answer comes as a surprise only to those who have not been paying attention to the democratic backsliding across the Balkans that has been going on for years, under the shadow of EU enlargement fatigue.

The Unholy Matrimony between Organised Crime and Politics

The first clear signal from the EU that something had gone terribly wrong came in 2018, with the publishing of the landmark Credible Enlargement Perspective, a strategic paper by the EU Commission that intended to breathe new life into the faltering accession process of the WB6. The document provided a diagnosis of the problem: “Today, the countries show clear elements of state capture, including links with organised crime and corruption at all levels of government and administration, as well as a strong entanglement of public and private interests.”

The fact that state institutions and criminal structures were inextricably linked across the region was no new information, but it was the first time the problem has been recognised and spelled out by the European Union. Overt politicisation, state capture, undue influence, “stabilitocracy”, competitive authoritarianism, hybrid regimes: these are just some concepts comprising a complicated vocabulary that have been used to describe the same phenomenon that has been registered across the Western Balkans over and over again. The issue at hand is that political elites have taken over the state apparatus and subjugated it to their own, private interests, leaving impoverished citizens in an environment of ever-shrinking freedoms and rights.

In particular, these issues come to prominence in Montenegro, where a local strongman, President Milo Djukanovic, had been building what some called mafia state for almost three decades of uninterrupted rule, only recently to be challenged by a new coalition government that won the latest parliamentary elections. The regime change in Montenegro, and the following reforms that took place, led to the single biggest drug bust, of more than 1 ton of cocaine, in the history of the country. In Kosovo, after the war-time leaders’ long rule, the new Prime Minister Albin Kurti won the election running a joint campaign with now-President Vjosa Osmani saying they both “share a determination to end endemic state capture by a corrupt elite.” In Serbia, the ongoing war on the mafia has been taking place for a year, it looks as if the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) started a final showdown that aims to get rid of the criminal infantry tentacles while preserving the political-criminal octopus that has been built by the omnipotent Serbian President, Aleksandar Vucic.

This unholy matrimony between organised crime and political elites represents the single biggest obstacle: at least based on early impressions after recent regime changes, the only way forward is not to focus on tackling organised crime, but by investing in democracy. After all, how can one meaningfully expect governments with clear links to organised crime to lead efforts to fight these very criminal groups?

This paradox emerged in a recent UNODC report, which found that the number of charges brought against organised crime groups in the Western Balkans has gone up six times, while the number of final convictions has been halved — meaning prosecution is twelve times less effective than it used to be. This report found that “the number of persons prosecuted for committing an offence as part of an organised crime group is increasing, while the number of persons convicted is on the decline, suggesting a gap in evidence gathering, constructing successful prosecutions and properly adjudicating organised crime cases.” One possible reason for this lies in the state capture of the judiciary, whereby, under political direction, law enforcement agencies arrest and indict organised crime groups in order to showcase their determination to the EU, all the while knowing that the cases are poorly built and have no chance in the court of law.

The Curse of EU Enlargement

How is it possible that, despite the international community’s robust involvement, billions in development aid, and very strict — yet fair — assessments by Brussels bureaucrats, these terrible developments have gone unnoticed and unaddressed for so long?

A point made by Jan-Werner Müller, professor of politics at Princeton University, not so long ago on the issue of Hungarian and Polish democratic backsliding within the EU translates well to the Western Balkans. He claimed that the “technocratic liberal repair crew from Brussels” assumesdemocracy will always be taken care of by nation-statesand is only concerned with the more narrowly defined rule of law. Therefore, “the undermining of political rights and independent institutions appears like a technical glitch, not as the conscious authoritarian project it actually is.” Once considered a technical glitch, it is then assumed that issues around the rule of law can be “fixed” by adopting action plans, road maps, building capacities, developing strategies, establishing cross-border cooperation, or using any other tool from the enlargement policy repertoire, including financial assistance. These are all, of course, necessary and sometimes useful preconditions but are destined for failure, owing to a fundamental misconception of what needs to be fixed.

To add insult to injury, research shows not only that EU conditionality has limited potential to reverse these negative trends, but that it is contributing to the rise of these practices. As argued by some researchers in a recent article, it was established that “the limited impact of the EU’s political conditionality in the Western Balkans with rampant state capture […] has effectively contributed to the consolidation of such detrimental governance patterns.” The argument put forward is that the way conditionality currently works actually enables clientelist networks comprised of businesses and political elites, by insisting on both economic and political reforms simultaneously. Furthermore, being a top-down process, it also weakens political competition and accountability of the executive within accession countries. Lastly, conditionality legitimises corrupt national elites through high-level interactions with the EU and member state’s officials. For example, recent visits by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen to Serbia, just two weeks apart.

The recent change in the enlargement methodology adopted by the EU — although arguably a third, important revision of this process over the last decade — will most likely fall short on its promises once again. The key novelty is the so-called “cluster approach”, where the most important issues around the rule of law are grouped under Cluster I, which should provide a better link between political criteria, quality of democracy, and the technical reforms that are being undertaken. For the citizens of the Western Balkans, the only hope is that this new approach will work and that democracy, no matter how severely under attack and undermined, will prevail.

This blog was originally published as a part of a Western Balkans Organized Crime dossier produced in cooperation between ISPI and BCSP: The Crime-Politics Nexus Entrapping The Balkans – Beogradski centar za bezbednosnu politiku (

To hear more about how the Western Balkans organised crime groups have come to dominate the global criminal underground from Northern Europe to South Africa, click here to watch the podcast of our 20:20 Visions Event.

Bojan Elek is a senior researcher at Belgrade Centre for Security Policy, a leading think-tank specialising in security issues in the Western Balkans. He specialises in European Union enlargement policy and Serbia’s European integration, with a special focus on monitoring reform in the rule of law and security. He is the coordinator of the Western Balkans Organized Crime Radar, a regional network of think tanks researching organised crime and monitoring government policies in this area.