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Saturday, 28 April, 2001, 13:15 GMT 14:15 UK
Criminal gangs running the Balkans
Immigrants leaving a lorry at Dover
The Balkans are a key route for illegal immigrants
By Balkans analyst Misha Glenny

The women displayed some variety around a theme of smoky eye make-up, tight trousers and designer blouses, but the men, hundreds of them, were like a community of clones - dark suits, dark ties, greased-back hair and, of course, shades.

When your children die of drug overdoses with stuff supplied by the Balkans, or your labourers are made unemployed because of illegal immigrants channelled through here, just remember

Guner Ismail
The people of Corleone, locked in by rectangular rocks and forbidding crags, are subject to that bizarre cultural phenomenon of importing a repackaged version of something they exported in the first place.

Along with the tens of thousands of emigrants to the United States were some 'men of honour' from the Corleone region who were later brilliantly romanticised on film, above all by Francis Ford Coppola in The Godfather.

A Bosnian woman pushes her child in a pushchair past a wall covered with shrapnel holes
The Balkans are still feeling the effects of war
Now, all the youngsters and a fair number of their elders in this affluent, if isolated, village project that image of graceful menace so carefully sculpted in Hollywood.

According to some social historians, the men of honour from Corleone earned their code of blood feud and vendetta from a group of immigrants in the late medieval period.

Half way between Corleone, the great mafia citadel of the 20th century, and Palermo, the Sicilian capital, lies Piana degli Albanesi, where live the descendants of Albanians who fled the Ottoman invasion of their territory and found refuge in Sicily in the 15th century.

Along with their colourful costumes which were out in force as always this Easter Sunday, the Albanians brought with them the concept of besa or honour.

The self-contained social system of these mountain people was built on the assumption that a man's word (I use the gender advisedly) was an absolute contractual guarantee and, if broken, the injured party had recourse to blood revenge.

The Balkan mafias have sunk their claws into every limb of the former Yugoslavia

Variations on the blood revenge have functioned around the world quite well over the centuries, and as equitably as most other pre-enlightment systems.

But when modern weapons' technology becomes available and a large market for illegal wares opens in an adjacent territory, then honour turns into dishonour and a coherent system of law turns into a chaotic dystopia of crime.

Criminal business

The Sicilian mafia, now somewhat cowed by courageous popular protest after their phenomenal killing spree of the 1980s and early 1990s, is being eclipsed by what has happened over the last decade in the Balkans.

British soldiers, part of international force in Balkans
International troops are trying to crack down on criminal gangs
For under the pressures of war, sanctions and economic collapse, south-eastern Europe has become one vast factory of criminality, turning over vast quantities of migrants, prostitutes, tobacco, guns and drugs, most of which are destined for the world's largest market - the European Union.

The Balkan mafias have sunk their claws into every limb of the former Yugoslavia. Cigarettes produced in Macedonia's three tobacco enterprises are packaged illegally as perfect Marlboro replicas and distributed via Serbia to central Europe and, above all, via Kosovo and Montenegro into Italy.

Behind every apparent nationalist crisis in the region lies a much seedier squabble between mafia bosses

Prostitutes from the former Soviet Union are channelled through almost all Balkan countries into the brothels of northern Europe, including the UK.

Serbia and Bosnia are the favoured vantage points from which illegal migrants from Asia begin their assault on the citadels of Fortress Europe.

The Balkans is awash with weaponry from millions of semi-automatics to armoured personnel carriers, either for internal use or for export.

And behind every apparent nationalist crisis in the region lies a much seedier squabble between mafia bosses who find that mobilising people upon ethnic lines is their most powerful weapon if their business deals go sour.

The outbreak of Croat separatist sentiment in western Hercegovina earlier this month was directly linked to the international community's attempt to halt the suspected illegal dealings of the largest local bank.

Political influence

The Macedonian crisis, when Albanians and Macedonians almost went to war in late March and early April, was sparked in part by a dispute over the control of the lucrative illegal tobacco smuggling operation into Kosovo.

And last weekend's elections in Montenegro, first and foremost about whether the republic should break its constitutional ties to Serbia and become independent, was not uninfluenced by the issue of who controls the crucial smuggling links with Italy.

Burning house in Tetovo after being hit by Macedonian heavy gunfire
A row over illegal tobacco smuggling played a part in the Macedonia violence
"In Macedonia's case, the West cannot blame Balkan primitivism," Guner Ismail, a Turk from Macedonia, recently told me.

Speaking through his elegantly trimmed beard, Guner, a former government minister and prominent anti-corruption campaigner, was adamant.

"When the UN placed sanctions on Serbia. And then when Greece, a member of the European Union, placed its blockade on this country in 1993, the state had no option but to criminalise itself in order to survive," he said.

"So when your economies are undermined by untaxed cigarettes from the Balkans, or when your children die of drug overdoses with stuff supplied by the Balkans, or your labourers are made unemployed because of illegal immigrants channelled through here, just remember.

"Just remember that it was the European Union and the United Nations that forced this country at least into its own misery of prostitution to criminals."

Throughout the Balkans, the international community has deployed about 70,000 of some of the best-equipped and trained soldiers in history. Recently they have been used to break up criminal gangs in both Bosnia and Kosovo.

Because troops from so many different countries are involved, these operations are tough to set up. But it suggests that it is slowly dawning on the European Union in particular that the Balkan mafias and the regional economic chaos upon which they feed may well be the greatest foreign policy challenge of the next decade.

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See also:

24 Apr 01 | Europe
Sarajevo's refugee 'business'
12 Apr 01 | Europe
US boost for Balkan stability
09 Feb 01 | Europe
Sarajevo: Gateway to Europe
06 Apr 01 | Europe
Ethnic tension a pan-European ill
03 Apr 01 | Europe
Nato in Macedonia peace drive
29 Mar 01 | Europe
Nato's Kosovo challenge
15 Jun 00 | Europe
Europe's drug gangs
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