"Panos KostakosWar is a lucrative enterprise for shadow actors."
Exclusive WSN interview with Panos Kostakes conducted by Ioannis Michaletos, WSN Editor South East Europe,WSN Coordinator of Southeastern European office.
Panos Kostakos, an analyst on international organized crime networks and academic personnel at the University of Bath, gave an interview to the World Security Network regarding the current context of organized illegal activities in Southeastern Europe.
Mr. Kostakos recently participated and coordinated a discussion for an international workshop organized by the University of Luvain (Institute of Criminal Law) and the Belgian Federal Police. The theme was “The Development of Ethnic Albanian Organized Crime in Europe: Real or Perceived Threat?”
Numerous experts from most European countries participated and provided papers in the fields of organized crime analysis and prevention as well as insights concerning the current state of affairs. The workshop took place behind closed doors in Brussels on October 2-3, 2008.
WSN: Over the past two decades, the Balkan region has experienced a surge in organized crime activities due to war, embargoes and dramatic power shifts. Do you believe that the influence of criminal networks is crucial to the current political scene of the Balkan states?
PANOS KOSTAKOS: War is a lucrative enterprise for shadow actors. Given that the levels of morality are fairly low, if not non-existent, doing dirty business during a war situation is not stigmatized. Additionally, the disorganization of society during war suggests that most formal or informal social control mechanisms are malfunctioning. There is an inverse relationship between social control and levels of criminality. This is the process that has triggered the eruption of organized crime in the Balkans. This explanation also helps us understand why Diaspora communities are been involved in illicit activities. Organized crime is nothing more than a form of criminality maintained by a nexus between crime, business and politics. In the case of the Balkans, proving these links in a court of law is notoriously difficult due to conflicting political and economic interests that lead to a “lack” of evidence. However, no one can prove that these links do not exist. In my view, it is the duty of state bodies and the government to provide evidence of their transparency. As far as I know, all evidence indicates the involvement of “respectable” individuals in organized crime.
WSN: Are organized crime groups in the Balkans interrelated and do they cooperate with each other regardless of ethnic or political frictions?
PK: Ethnicity, geographical distance, religion, common language, culture, ideology and history are all factors that determine eventually who becomes friends with whom. This is a basic principle in social networking. So in theoretical terms we should expect to see more instances of homogeneous groups. However, due to the lack of empirical data and systematic collection of official statistics on the topic, we cannot make firm conclusions about the ethnic composition of criminal networks in the Balkans. One can assume that such statistics will increase the risk of stigmatizing ethnic communities. This would lead to serious social unrest that could also spark more illicit activities. As long as stability is in the interest of powerful political and economic circles, the status quo will remain the same. Having said that, I can see that attention is placed more on geographical localities rather than on ethnic groups. The organized crime problem in Kosovo will most likely shift to the northern part whereas in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) the issue is located on the outskirts of Skopje in the western parts of the country. Although some ad-hoc organized crime groups are heterogeneous (multi ethnic), law enforcement initiatives can compromise the position of a single group. Emphasizing the geographic locality of organized crime may trigger initiatives for further border control that could compromise the economic and cultural interests of various groups.
WSN: What might constitute the most important challenge for the future for the security services of the Balkan states in relation to the criminal syndicates?
PK: The organized state and its institutions should act as a mediator between conflicting cultural groups. Moreover, the enforcement and application of the law should be free from political interference. There are also practical challenges. Training and equipment for strategic and tactical investigations and analysis are essential. Mastering these techniques will mean that the exchange of information with other countries will be much easier and forthcoming. Trust is a crucial issue here. At the moment there are many cases were control deliveries are being intercepted by transit countries in order to make the arrest. This is a major obstacle for cooperation and exchange of information. Additionally, we should realize that investigations into organized crime can last for years and in some cases bring very little results. I think we can learn a lot from the British, Italian, Belgian and Dutch way of dealing with organized crime cases.
WSN: Is it fair to say that public sector corruption in the Balkan countries is a major cause for concern?
PK: Corruption is a very serious problem in the Balkans. In the short run, corrupt practices may bring investment and development for some areas. This will certainly increase the inflow of black and dirty capital into the region. But in the long run, corrupt practices compromise the image of the country and deter many foreign investments. Building political and economic institutions on practices that are not acceptable with the international business norms indicates that these institutions are susceptible to uncertainty and unprotected from economic crises.
WSN: There is a lot of talk lately about the link between radical extremists and organized crime networks. Can they be classified as a “symbiotic” coexistence or as an “ad hoc” one, depending on the illegal commodity involved?
PK: There is no hard evidence that can prove the existence of such ties in the post-war period. This however provides little reassurance that some sub rosa collaboration may take place. If such ties exist I can only assume that they have the form of the traditional crime-business-politics nexus. To be frank, I think it is highly unlikely that a direct link between terrorist acts and organized crime in the Balkans will be proven. If there are radicals acting in the region, their attention will most likely be on recruitment, propaganda and on radical religious teachings.
WSN: Lastly, do you see a trend that will lead towards the "legitimating" of illegal networks in the Balkans as the second post-war generation takes the lead and enters the political and social front stage?
PK: I believe that the European dream is a positive factor that will prevent to some degree the establishment of organized crime in the Balkans. The good thing is that organized crime in the Balkans has been acknowledged as a problem by both national and international institutions from the very early stages of its development. The bad thing is that key actors continue to disregard the involvement of the business and political worlds. Such statements send contradictory messages to the international political, economic and law enforcement communities.