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Central/Eastern Europe: Analysis From Washington--Overcoming Organized Crime

Washington, 13 December 1996 (RFE/RL) - Representatives from 16 Central and Eastern European countries are meeting in Sofia this week to share ideas on how to overcome two increasingly daunting obstacles on their road to democracy and economic reform: the corruption of their political establishments and the rise of organized crime throughout their societies.

But despite good intentions all around, this three-day meeting -- organized by the Council of Europe and the European Union's Executive Commission -- is unlikely to represent a major turning point in the struggle against these twin evils of post-communist societies.

There are three reasons for this dispiriting conclusion: the nature and scope of organized crime in these countries; the administrative weakness of their police and judicial agencies; and the particular challenges posed by the internationalization of organized crime within and beyond their borders.

The first of these represents the greatest challenge. On the one hand, the nature of corruption and organized crime is fundamentally different in post-communist countries than elsewhere. And on the other and because of this, the scope of both is beyond anything that exists in Western countries.

In virtually all of these countries, there has been not only a massive privatization of state assets but of the government itself. Entire parts of the state bureaucracies, including even the foreign policy and security structures, have passed from the control of the government as an institution into the control of private persons.

One result of this is that the distinction between what is considered public and what is considered private that exists in Western societies rarely is recognized in these societies.

Many government officials see bribes and other forms of corruption as appropriate given the state's inability to pay them or even protect them. And many of the new entrepreneurs see such corruption as both necessary and unexceptionable in the pursuit of their private profit.

As a result, in many of these countries, corruption and the organized crime related to it are fundamentally different and far larger than in other states.

In this region, organized crime does not provide the things the government proscribes; it is in fact an integral part of the way of doing business for almost everyone.

And neither government employees nor private entrepreneurs tend to think about interests broader than their personal ones.

The second problem confronting all these post-communist countries is the weakness of the very instruments most countries use to contain and fight these social ills. None of them has an effective police force, and none has a completely independent judiciary.

Many governments do not pay the police regularly and cannot compete with other groups to pay judges enough to keep them on the bench.

Instead, private organizations have created their own, often illegal security organizations, and most countries have been unable to overcome the arbitrary, telephone justice that was endemic to communist era courts.

Both of these developments have made it even more difficult to fight organized crime in this region.

And finally, these countries are in every case confronted by a special problem that arises because of the intersection of their recent political development and the rapid and uncontrolled internationalization of organized crime.

More than anywhere else in the world, crime in this region shows even less respect for national borders than it does for the laws of the individual states. Not only are border regimes often rudimentary, but in virtually all cases, the individual countries face in crime an international enemy, one that can be combatted only by close cooperation.

But such cooperation is extremely difficult for states that have only recently escaped from foreign domination and that are interested in building their own government structures.

In many of them, political oppositions can be counted on to complain about any supposed "surrender" of state authority to international cooperation -- even when everyone is prepared to acknowledge that such cooperation is absolutely essential.

And such feelings make it even easier for criminal groups to operate across borders because they can count on local authorities to be extremely suspicious of any intervention from abroad.

Consequently, the Sofia meeting is unlikely to succeed in all its goals. But it will have made an important contribution if it leads these states to accept the need for changes both within each of them and among all in order to combat these threats to the progress they have made up to now.