In some of the countries of the Western Balkans, criminal groups and political elites have grown increasingly interdependent. In particular, Serbia’s and Montenegro’s societies have suffered the most from these links. The two countries have long been considered frontrunners in the EU integration process, whose final completion, however, is difficult to foresee. Similarly, Albania’s EU negotiating process has also been delayed for years, in part because of the country's role in global drug trafficking schemes.
The fall of Slobodan Milosevic on October 5th 2000 was supposed to be watershed moment in Serbia’s democratic transition. Reforms were implemented slowly and not without resistance. Over the last decade, however, the new regime led by the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) has done its best to discontinue and reverse institution-building efforts of its democratic predecessors. The young party rode on the promise of fighting corruption and organized crime, thus gaining unprecedented popular support, but its bombastic measures came short of actual results.
All Western Balkan countries have, at least officially, committed to joining the European Union and promised to fight organized 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 organized crime with final convictions.
The Balkans, which lie at the heart of South-Eastern Europe, have historically been an important transit route for drugs, especially for heroin coming from the East to be trafficked across Europe.
According to the Serbian investigative portal KRIK, Veljko Belivuk, arrested on multiple charges in February 2021 and notably known as both a leader of the football club Partizan Belgrade’s fan group Principi and as a top underworld figure close to the Montenegrin Kavac clan, described multiple occasions and cases in which President Aleksandar Vucic would have asked for favours, from providing security services at his meetings to beating up opponents.
Early on Wednesday morning, October 13th, Kosovo’s police raided several targets across the country, including Mitrovica. During and after the raids against suspected smugglers, they arrested eight people and issued arrest warrants for another ten. Six of the arrested people are of Albanian nationality, one is Serb Serbia, and another is Bosnjak. Eight out of the ten people who received arrest warrants are Albanian while two are Serbs.
A series of houses demolished overnight without any police intervention, a strange deal between a state-owned munitions factory and a private company, a smear campaign against an independent media outlook that has been investigating over these and similar episodes.
The city of Kotor, one of Montenegro’s most famous tourist destinations known for its rich history and medieval fortresses, has acquired a different kind of reputation in recent years: it has become known as the birthplace of two criminal clans which are involved in a bloody war to extinction.
One year after it landed in Europe, the Covid-19 pandemic has left a deep mark on the Western Balkans. On the one hand, it has exacerbated geopolitical dynamics that had been ongoing for decades, especially with regards to the activity of external actors. And while the EU has continued to be inconclusive, proceeding at a snail’s pace with its carrot-and-stick approach, China has seized on the opportunity and expanded its footprint.
When Covid-19 hit the Balkans, it was too soon to foresee that besides local health systems the pandemic would impact regional geopolitics too. In the longstanding instability also caused by stagnation in the EU integration process for Balkan countries, China exploited the situation to increase its influence in the region.
On 5 October 2000 the regime of Slobodan Milosevic was toppled amid popular protests, but the past 20 years have been anything but simple in Serbia.