Organized crime in southeastern Europe often operates under cover of private security companies. International groups warn that the EU should be cautious about letting Balkan countries into the bloc too quickly.
Many security firms in the Balkans are involved in corrupt dealings
Organized crime has infiltrated southeastern Europe, particularly Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia, and corrupted legitimate business in the region, according to a regional network of investigative journalists. The Sarajevo-based Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) said this development put into question the ability and willingness of the region's governments to combat crime and detain war criminals.
It also cast doubt on whether the European Union will make the crackdown on corruption a key demand for these countries' eligibility for membership in the bloc.
"The EU will keep making demands and Eastern European countries will keep saying what the EU wants to hear - and do nothing," OCCRP'S Drew Sullivan told Deutsche Welle. "But we all know the EU will let everyone in. They showed that with Romania and Bulgaria, two nations still plagued by widespread corruption."
Some criminal structures have even been able to influence MPs in Sofia, the report says.
Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007 and have subsequently been repeatedly criticized for their slow progress in fighting corruption. A recent EU-funded report "Examining the Links between Organized Crime and Corruption" ranks Bulgaria alongside Italy, Poland and Romania as the EU's most corrupt members.
"Organized crime networks have infiltrated most public institutions [in Bulgaria]," the report said. "This influence in the political and administrative structures allows companies to use corruption to win public tenders, avoid taxes and systematically break laws to gain competitive advantages."
The role of security companies
Private security firms played a pivotal role in the spread of organized crime in the region, said OCCRP, which recently concluded a three-month investigation into Southeast Europe's private security sector. Security companies maintained ties with organized crime, corrupt politicians and law enforcement elements throughout southeastern Europe. The region's weak legal infrastructure, lack of enforcement and widespread corruption had facilitated this development.
In Bulgaria, for example, security agencies constitute the country's largest private employer with 130,000 employees or one in 11 adult males, according to OCCRP estimates. The sector employs three times as many people as the Bulgarian military and five times that of the police.
Many former Yugoslav army soldiers have joined security firms
In the countries of the former Yugoslavia, the security sector began growing following the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s and the subsequent collapse of existing political systems.
"Trained professional soldiers simply switched to private security companies, protecting banks, schools, money transfers and important people," the OCCRP said. "The work fed their families and gave newly formed governments much needed jobs and security, at least in theory. In reality, the private security sector became its own political, criminal and social force."
The EU report on corruption blamed the nexus of private security and organized crime on UN sanctions imposed in the former Yugoslav states during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.
"The fact that smuggling various essential goods, such as oil, was necessary for surviving the UN-imposed embargo, and that money from illegal trade was also necessary for financing the waging of war and other state functions, facilitated the involvement of the security services in forging links with organized criminals who could supply the badly needed goods and/or funds," the report said. "After the wars, these links have endured and are still causing great harm to the quality of governance in the region."
Read more about corruption in the Balkans