Washington, April 23 (RFE/RL) - U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno told a Budapest meeting of East European police officials on Sunday that their countries must cooperate to fight organized crime.
She thus simultaneously identified one of the most serious challenges to international security in this region and also the most difficult hurdle its countries must overcome if they are to be successful.
Since the collapse of communism and the demise of the Soviet Union, crime has skyrocketed in this region. Almost every day brings fresh reports of a new crime wave in one or another country there. But more important, the media is beginning to focus on the fact that crime has gone international and now affects the security of these countries and many others as well.
Organized crime, of course, has never shown much respect for the laws of a given state, but the collapse of the Soviet empire and the simultaneous revolutions in communication and transportation now allow it to thumb its nose at state borders as well.
The obvious response - and the one the attorney general has urged - is dramatically expanded international cooperation. In the West, many governments now recognize the international aspect of organized crime and are now cooperating with each other in an effort to cope with the new criminal International that deals in drugs, weapons - including nuclear materials - and laundered money. Alone, no state has been able to deal with this challenge, and even when they have cooperated, these governments have had only limited success.
But the challenges to the former communist countries - and especially to some of the former Soviet republics - are even greater.
First, these states are extremely fragile, often with both weak police forces and weak laws, and thus may not be in a position to cooperate even if the political leadership decides to. In some cases, organized criminal groups may in fact be stronger than the state. As a result, they are more often breeding grounds for crime rather than places from which it can be fought.
Second, precisely because these countries are so new and fragile, they are extremely reluctant to take any step that suggests they are yielding their sovereign rights - however much they might benefit from doing so. This is particularly the case in the former Soviet space where many countries are concerned that any "cooperation" could allow another state to dominate them once again.
Even in countries with a long history of independence, many people have opposed the kind of sharing of information and cooperation among police forces that the attorney general is now advocating. Indeed, American officials are now advocating for others something many of them had been opposed to only a few years ago.
And third, all too often in these countries - as well as in others - those calling for expanding the fight against organize crime either are or are assumed to be advancing this idea as part of a broader political agenda, one many might see as unfriendly to civil liberties. And these countries have the additional burden of recent memories of just what an enormous police power can mean.
Many politicians in these countries - again as well as in others - use the population's fear of crime to advance their careers. And consequently, many of those committed to democracy and freedom fear any expansion of the police sector.
But Attorney General Reno is right to raise and press this issue because the criminal International represents a threat not only to security of the countries of the world but also to the chance for democratic evolution in the countries of this region.