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Balkan arms find buyers in Western Europe

Lindita Arapi / dc
December 5, 2015

Many weapons on Europe's black market come via the Balkans. The terrorists in the Paris attacks allegedly used such weapons. The illegal arms trade from the Balkans is a security risk that affects all of Europe.

Symbolbild Waffen Waffenhandel Waffenlieferung Rüstung Rüstungsexport
Image: Fotolia/Haramis Kalfar

According to media reports, the November 13 Paris attackers used two Zastava M-70 assault rifles from the former Yugoslavia. And the trail of the weapons used in January's attacks on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo also led to the Balkans. When a Kosovar terror cell in Italy and Kosovo was busted a few days ago, a large number of illegal weapons was found in a Kosovar village.

After the former Yugoslavia's conflicts in the 1990s - and the looting of an arms depot in Albania in 1997 - a wide range of Balkan arms have entered Europe's black market. The prices vary: While a Kalashnikov can cost between 300 and 500 euros ($325-540) in the Balkans, the price goes up to 2,000 euros in some countries.

According to a study by the Flemish Peace Institute in Brussels, the majority of the illegal weapons in the European Union have been smuggled via the Balkan countries. "We're talking about Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Albania - you could say that many of these countries have a problem with illegal weapons," the study's co-author Nils Duquet told DW. "These are weapons that fell into people's hands after the Balkan wars. According to our research, we can say that in all the Western Balkan countries, there are more illegal weapons than legal ones."

That poses a problem for security in all of Europe. Ivan Zverzhanovski, a Belgrade-based expert with the Southeastern and Eastern Europe Clearinghouse for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons (SEESAC), a UN organization, is concerned about possible links between the weapons trade and terrorist groups. Zverzhanovski fears that the Balkans are becoming a cheap source of weapons for a variety of terror cells in Europe: "We don't know how the Paris attackers got their weapons. But there are a great number of illegal weapons being circulated in the Balkans, and we know that there are links between secondary buyers, organized crime, and terrorists."

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Though Balkan nations are fencing people out, they have had less success with gunsImage: Getty Images/AFP/R. Atanasovski

Good customers

Burim Ramadani, from the Institute for European Studies in Pristina, said the risk potential was very high. "The Western Balkan countries are fragile states," he said, "and that makes it easier for terrorist groups to secure different amounts of weapons."

Fatos Klosi, a former director of the Albanian intelligence service, pointed to another aspect of the arms trade: "The terrorists pay very well, so they are always able to find weapons on the black market. We know that there is a black market for criminals and terrorists in the Balkans."

The number of illegal arms in circulation in the Balkans is cause for concern: According to Serbia's Interior Ministry, there are between 200,000 and 900,000 small arms units in Serbia alone.

A UN report from last year emphasized the high number of illegal weapons in Kosovo. The country of roughly 2 million people has an estimated 450,000 small arms. And, according to SEESAC in Belgrade, there are likely about 750,000 illegal weapons in circulation in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The same is true for the whole of the Western Balkans. After Yugoslavia's civil wars in the 1990s, many people simply held on to the weapons they had, Duquet said: "We found that people are now starting to sell these weapons to people who can smuggle them in small quantities into the EU. Once they are there, then they circulate from one criminal group to another."