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Balkans: Officials Pledge To Tackle The 'Cancer' Of Organized Crime

Officials attending a European Union-led conference on organized crime in Southeastern Europe have agreed to step up cooperation in fighting corruption, smuggling, and illegal immigration in the Balkans. The conference, which was organized by the British Home Office, adopted a final statement outlining what it calls a joint coordinated effort by the international community and the countries in the region to tackle organized crime.

Prague, 26 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- European countries have agreed to form a strategic partnership to fight organized crime in Southeastern Europe, which they say is threatening democracy, prosperity, and the region's long-term stability.

Officials attending a London conference on organized crime in Southeastern Europe yesterday adopted a statement pledging to step up joint technical and operational efforts against illegal migration and trafficking in human beings, drugs, and weapons, as well as corruption.

The ministerial conference was an initiative of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and was attended by 57 delegations representing countries from the region, the European Union, the United States, Canada, and Russia, as well as international organizations.

British officials say it was the largest meeting ever held on the topic of organized crime in Southeastern Europe and the biggest conference on the region overall since the Dayton peace conference in 1995.

British Home Secretary David Blunkett told participants that the Balkans have become what he called "the gateway to Europe for organized criminals."

Blunkett said that the only way to outwit and track down organized criminals is by working more closely with countries in the region. He also said closer cooperation was "particularly vital" in light of the heightened threat of international terrorism.

Paddy Ashdown, the EU high representative in Bosnia, explained why organized crime is a growing problem for the region: "The rise of organized crime is a problem in the Balkans, firstly, because of geography: It's on Europe's frontier, it is the corridor for crime and criminal products from Asia and the Caucasus. Secondly, [it is] because it has weakened, fractured states and legal systems. Albania's collapse into anarchy in 1997 is the most extreme case, but there are many other cases, too. And third, [it is] because of the wars of the 1990s. Corruption, the black market -- crime stalks after war like a dark shadow. It is ever present."

Javier Solana, the EU foreign-policy chief, said every country in the region is affected by drug and cigarette smuggling, corruption and racketeering, and the trafficking of people and weapons.

Organized-crime gangs in the former Yugoslavia control some 70 percent of the heroin trafficking in several European countries, Solana said. He added that based on recent reports from various international agencies, as many as 200,000 of the estimated 700,000 women who cross borders annually for the sex trade are going to or through the Balkans.

Solana's statement corroborates the findings of a report issued today by Human Rights Watch, a New York-based rights group, which says that a prostitution network is flourishing in Bosnia with the complicity of international and local police. The report says traffickers bring thousands of women and girls from Moldova, Romania, and Ukraine into Bosnia each year.

Solana also pointed to the fact that prominent war criminals indicted by the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague, like former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, remain at large, often sustained by organized crime.

Corruption is also endemic. Officials at the London conference said customs and tax scams cost Bosnia, for example, more than $600 million a year in lost revenues, almost double its annual budget.

Fighting such myriad problems appears to be a daunting challenge. But in a final statement adopted yesterday -- the so-called London Statement -- participants pledged that starting from next year, when Greece assumes the presidency of the EU, they would help a Bucharest-based regional anticrime center become operational.

The Center for Combating Trans-Boundary Crime and Corruption was established in 1999 under an initiative by the Southeast European Cooperative Initiative (SECI), a group of 12 Southeastern and Central European states.

The London conference said it will help the SECI center complete the training of its crime experts and increase the number of operational exchanges with the Europol European police network on organized-crime investigations.

Romanian Deputy Interior Minister Alexandru Farcas, who attended the conference, told RFE/RL that the meeting highlighted the center's importance as a tool for cooperation in the fight against organized crime. "The London conference gave an explicit message that the Southeastern European countries which are contemplating European integration must cooperate, and the proper instrument for cooperation [in the fight against organized crime] is the SECI center in Bucharest. During the conference, European support for SECI was expressed, maybe for the first time, and support was also expressed for the strengthening of operational cooperation within SECI," Farcas said.

The London Statement also pledged to step up efforts to develop crime-fighting policies by building better institutional capacities and implementing more efficient legislation. The statement also underlined the danger posed by corruption and the necessity of tackling it.

Chris Patten, the EU's external-relations commissioner, told participants that the Balkan states must be helped to build corruption-free institutions "brick by brick" in order to deal with what he called "the cancer of organized crime."

Farcas, whose country has been repeatedly warned by European officials that it must deal with widespread corruption, told RFE/RL the conference stressed the link between high-level political and judicial corruption and organized crime. "It was highlighted during the debates in London that corruption and organized crime are connected and that top criminals involved in organized crime try, and sometimes manage, to acquire impunity using corruption," Farcas said.

The London Statement urges states in the region to implement and enforce anticorruption strategies and laws and to improve financial investigations to better control money laundering.

Participants also promised to improve port and airport security, step up naval and maritime security in the Adriatic, and to train more police in the Balkans.