The Eastern European Megamafia and Serbia

In June this year author & Balkanologist Misha Glenny was interviewed by B92 about his new book on organized crime “McMafia”.

The interview gives a fascinating insight into the role of organized crime in the Balkans, in particular their central role in the recent Balkan wars.

I have quoted the interview extensively here in a few sample questions:

B92: Can you define the moment when organized crime started to develop, or to proliferate in Serbia, or in the former Yugoslavia?

Glenny: I think that as a process it happened between 1988,1989 and 1991, by the time the war broke out in Croatia and the federal structures had completely collapsed. Then, all sides, particularly Serbia and particularly Croatia, very quickly Macedonia and Slovenia as well had created their paramilitary armies which were indistinguishable from the gangsters on the streets. And it’s no coincidence that all of the major criminal figures, in Serbia or in Croatia, for example, had a role to play in the war as well.

B92: In what way did their cooperation develop during the war?

Glenny: Well, here in Serbia, and in Croatia, and in Bosnia, one of the things that was going on was that the war was used as an excuse for, what one would call in Marxist terms, Primitive Capital Accumulation, i.e. in the battlefields, if the Croat unit or the Serb unit took an area, than, there would be a paramilitary team that would clear it of all its goods.

Television, fridges, whatever they could get their hands on. Sometimes, in the case of Eastern Slavonia, entire vineyards, oilfields and so on, and they would use this to start building up a criminal empire. Now what I felt when I was researching this about the 1990s, is because in the key instances there was a cooperation between gangsters and paramilitaries of all sides, i.e. Croats and Serbs cooperating together, Serbs and Albanians cooperating together in the heroin trade for example, that actually I came to review my belief about what happened in 1990s.

The real engine behind the wars was very little to do with nationalist conflict, and all to do with organized crime. Finding the way of seizing as much economic power in the various areas of the former Yugoslavia as possible, and establishing themselves as the key economic players in these countries.

B92: What was the role of the state? What was the role of the security services in Eastern Europe when it came to the development of organized crime?

Glenny: It was different in the former Yugoslavia from everywhere else. And that is because the slide to war meant that the state remained more powerful in Yugoslavia than it did, say, in neighboring Bulgaria. So, in neighboring Bulgaria, what tended to happen was that large number of security forces in 1989, 1990, were sacked from their jobs, and they were unemployed. They then used their skills of surveillance, creating criminal, or creating underground networks, killing people, smuggling – in Bulgaria, smuggling was very important – they became the new organized crime.

Here in Serbia or in Croatia, it was different because UDBA [former Yugoslav secret service] basically remained intact. It split along national lines obviously, but essentially the networks remained consistent with the state, and what they did was to develop a relationship with the paramilitaries, with the organized crime gangs, and so when you come on to something like cigarette smuggling from 1994 onwards, all of the states were getting their percentage, their cut from allowing the cigarette trade to go on through. They became mutually dependent.

B92: You say in your book that the Russians love their Slavic brothers, but that in the world of organized crime and weapons trade, one could hardly notice that.

Glenny: This is really important for me. The realization. When looking at the arms flows coming out of Ukraine and Russia, once the arms embargo was imposed on all republics of the former Yugoslavia, the amount of weaponry that went into Croatia from Ukraine and Russia is really quite astonishing. It was their primary source, the largest percentage of weapons coming into Croatia came from Russia and Ukraine and so, you know, it’s an example of how the mythology of strong political bond between, say, Moscow and Belgrade, is just that. When it comes to money, nationalism plays really insignificant role.

B92: Can you describe the role our criminals had in the development of organized crime? What was the role of the criminals from the former Yugoslavia?

Glenny: It was the very important role. And the reason why it was the important role is partly because of the specific function of the transit zone. For drugs, for women, for cigarettes, all going to the European Union, and it’s important to remember that this trade in Europe was driven by the huge demand of the EU citizens for drugs, illegal migrant labor, women, and so on… and it had a very important role there.

But, the other thing was the issue of the war, as a smoke screen for this activity, the so called fog of war), and also after the imposition of sanctions on the then Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, i.e. Serbia and Montenegro. Those sanctions were a disaster. Because Serbia and Montenegro were self sufficient in food, all they needed to get was oil, and all the surrounding countries were very, very weak, going through tough transitions. So over night in 1992, you’ve created the Pan-Balkan Mafia.

This was where the Bulgarians the Serbs, the Croats, the Romanians, the Hungarians, the Greeks, the Albanians, everyone became involved in supply of oil to Serbia, and then in order to finance the wars, the transit of goods and services out through the Balkans and into the EU. And that was an absolutely massive increase. Now, this all drew the attention of secret services in the European Union and the United States. They knew that there was a hell of a lot going on in the Balkans, they didn’t exactly know what to do about it, but its role in the 1990s, and in the first few years of the post millennium period, the “naughties” as we called them, was really important.

B92: You have dedicated the last chapter of your book to the future of organized crime. How is it different from what it is today?

Glenny: ….It is interesting for me to observe Bulgaria, where criminal elements are at this time more powerful than in Serbia, but Bulgaria is now an EU members. I think that organized crime and its power in Serbia are directly connected to Serbia’s links with the EU. If Serbia becomes an EU member, it will receive all sorts of incentives that are perhaps not visible now, but that are necessary, above all financial injections into the economically devastated areas. These areas are southern Serbia for example, near the borders. These are the generators of organized crime.

There’s Belgrade, too, of course, where most of the money is. If Serbia becomes an EU members, the organized crime problem will slowly diminish in the 10 to 15-year period. That has happed in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, to a lesser degree in Poland, although that’s a specific problem. I’m sure it will happen in Bulgaria too. EU membership will destroy organized crime or bring it to an acceptable level. If, however Serbia remains outside the EU, then possibilities for organized crime to consolidate and increase its influence in the country will open up. [From B92 – Insight – Off the air – “Criminals, key business players”]

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