A new United Nations report says the Balkans, once known as a hotbed for crime and violence amid Yugoslav wars and the collapse of Communism, have become safer than western Europe.
The stereotype of the Balkans as a gangsters' haven no longer applies
The Balkans have made huge strides in cutting conventional crimes such as homicide, robbery, rape, burglary and assault but challenges still remain in the form of organized crime and its links to politicians and business, a new UN report concludes.
"Some of you will be surprised," said Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which compiled the report, at a news conference in Brussels. "In general, if you look at conventional crime, the levels of these crimes across the region are by far lower than they used to be, particularly at the beginning of the 1990s."
The UN report says that the levels of conventional crime are now lower in the Balkans than in Western Europe.
No longer gangsters' paradise
Called "Crime and its Impact on the Balkans," the report is based on UN and national police data from nine countries: Serbia, Albania, Macedonia, Croatia, Romania, Moldova, Bulgaria, Montenegro and Bosnia.
Murders have dropped in the Balkans since the 1990s
Underlining the benefits of the relative political and economic stability of recent years in the region, the report said the Balkans had come a long way from a time when "demagogues, secret police and thugs profited from sanctions-busting and the smuggling of people, arms, cigarettes and drugs."
"At present, the levels of crime against people and property are lower than elsewhere in Europe, and the number of murders is falling in every Balkan country," Costa said. The number of reported murders in the region halved from 2,185 in 1998 to 1,130 in 2006, the report found.
The report says the trend of reduced crime will continue since the region did not have the basic conditions for high levels of crime that exist elsewhere: mass poverty, income inequality, large-scale urbanization and youth unemployment.
"The stereotype of the Balkans as a gangsters' paradise no longer applies -- though serious problems remain," Costa said.
Organized crime, heroin smuggling main problems
Organized crime and the region's role in heroin trafficking risk undermining the successes achieved in slashing conventional crime, the UNODC report suggests.
Much of the heroin destined for Europe passes through the Balkans
Costa said there were widespread links between business, politics and organized crime, in particular in Albania, which he said remains the "soft underbelly" of the Balkans for organized crime.
"What we see as the big problem in Albania is in a certain sense corruption and a benign eye in turn towards organized crime."
Heroin smuggling also remains a huge problem with the Balkans considered the main transit route for heroin destined for Western Europe. About 100 tons are estimated to pass through the region every year, Costa said.
The EU too has long been concerned about organized crime and corruption in the Balkans, both in new EU member states Romania and Bulgaria, as well others involved in the EU's extensive accession process which makes legal, political and other reforms conditions for EU entry.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said on Thursday tackling organized crime and corruption remained "formidable challenges" in the Balkans.
"This needs to change if the region is to keep moving forward towards the European Union," he said, adding that those threats remained the greatest obstacles to visa-free travel to the EU for Balkan citizens.
"The fact is that EU states and public opinion are worried about organized crime in the Balkans," Rehn said.
The UN report has urged governments in the Balkans to clean up the nexus between criminal gangs and business. It has also called for more cross-border cooperation between national police forces.
"Profiteers of the past are trying to launder their reputations and money through business and politics," said Costa.
"Future crime trends in the Balkans will depend on the rule of law, integrity in governance and political ability."