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Balkans Remain In Grip Of Crime

Ivo Pukanic was killed in front of his office in the city center.
Ivo Pukanic was killed in front of his office in the city center.
One night in October 1993, three armies were hunkered down in positions around Mostar, a city in southern Bosnia-Herzegovina. In the dead of night, two soldiers from the Bosnian Croat army met with two counterparts from the Bosnian Serb army at a prearranged rendezvous. They carried no weapons and did not come to fight. Or even to talk. In a few seconds, a bag full of cash changed hands and the soldiers parted ways.

A few hours later, the Bosnian Croats attacked the Serbian positions. But they met no resistance; the Bosnian Serb artillery was unmanned. The winners quickly took possession of their prizes and began shelling positions held by Bosnian Muslims. The bombardment continued for two hours before the Serbian forces "regrouped" and moved to retake their positions. When they arrived, the Croats were gone.

Last week, almost exactly 15 years after that night near Mostar, a prominent Croatian journalist was assassinated in Zagreb. What is the common thread between these two events?

You see, organized crime and radical nationalism have always gone hand in hand in the Balkans. Under the cover of "patriotism," war crimes and more banal crimes thrived. While people were fed on a steady diet of hatred and mistrust, pushed to live in isolated ethnic enclaves, their leaders went into "business" -- business that rose above the ethnic divisions that crippled the region. When wars ended, it didn't matter who'd won and who'd lost -- the real winners were always the criminals who strengthened their positions and legitimized their gains after the guns fell silent. Everyone else lost.

Weak states, ethnic divisions, an atmosphere of mistrust -- this is the key to organized crime in the Balkans. Their power is enhanced by modern communications technologies and porous borders. Mafia members or their stooges are sitting in the region's parliaments, drafting laws at the behest of criminals. Others are serving as police officers or in the security organs. Still others have become judges or journalists. No one was able to stand up to the power of organized crime in the absence of any credible state authority.

The assassination last week in Zagreb of journalist Ivo Pukanic is just the latest example of this lamentable pattern. Last month, the daughter of a Croatian lawyer was killed. Before that, a journalist investigating organized crime, a businessman, and a local politician were beaten up. In 1999, prominent journalist Slavko Curuvija was assassinated; in 2003, Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was gunned down in broad daylight in front of the government building in Belgrade. Countless witnesses and gang members have met the same fate in recent years. Needless to say, hardly any of these crimes have been solved.

"Politicians and the police have embraced one another," Croatian police chief Vladimir Faber said on October 24, describing the shared outrage at Pukanic's slaying. But the words ring hollow. After all, Croatia has just named its fourth interior minister in less than five years. Just a month ago, then-Interior Minister Berslav Roncevic said, "Croatia's capital is one of the safest in the world!" But the truth seems to be that politicians and their commitments come and go, but the mafia bosses remain the same.

Corruption's Deep Roots

In May the UN issued an optimistic report about crime in the Balkans, saying, "the Balkans region is one of the safest in Europe." But this rose-colored report fell flat and was soon forgotten. Everyone knows the Balkans is the premier transit zone into Europe. Each year, 100 tons of heroin pass through the region. The human-trafficking business is worth some $5 billion to $7 billion annually. This kind of money buys a lot of power in such a poor region.

Across the Balkans, the secret services, militaries, and politicians have created hidden networks that are no long secret. In fact, they are all too evident. Corruption has deep roots; it begins with the drafting of laws and continues through their haphazard implementation. Seemingly incompetent policy is actually a consequence of fundamentally conflicted interests.

Pukanic himself was not a lily-white crusader for justice. There has long been speculation he had ties to mafia circles, and his journalistic work often seemed to be following a shadowy agenda. His weekly, "Nacional," led a fierce campaign against Djindjic and, for 43 straight weeks, published materials against Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic. Such intense interest is impossible to justify in purely journalistic terms.

Nonetheless, his assassins must be held to account. But even if Pukanic's killers are brought to justice, that would only be the beginning of a process that Croatia and other countries in the region desperately need. But if the police find the killer but fail to go deeper and identify and prosecute those within the network of organized crime who ordered the assassination, then the mafia will simply emerge stronger than ever and fear will predominate on the streets of Zagreb and beyond.

The authorities in Croatia are at a crucial crossroads -- this is not a matter of solving a single murder, but of dismantling a powerful organized-crime network. And if the government finds the resolve to undertake this task, Pukanic will not likely be the last victim.

The European Union has already warned Croatia that it needs to crack down on corruption and organized crime. It has sent the same message to other governments in the region. The bloc has frozen hundreds of millions of euros of funding for new EU member Bulgaria because of its failure to curb powerful mafia organizations.

A recent U.S. university study of crime in the Balkans argues it will take at least 30 years to establish the rule of law in the region and root out the insidious partnership between politicians and the mafia. And if that process ever truly gets under way and if the webs of conspiracy are traced all the way to the end, it might come as no surprise that they end with people like those four soldiers who, on an October night in 1993, bought and sold an artillery barrage on the outskirts of Mostar.

Nenad Pejic is associate director of broadcasting at RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL