{"title": "The Balkans held back by their status as a smuggler's paradise","content": "
Trafficking in arms, drugs, humans and stolen goods is destabilising the Balkan states and straining their ties with the West, a conference in Bulgaria on security in southeastern Europe heard on Saturday.'Our countries are not integrated with the West but our gangsters are,' Albanian Defence Minister Pandeli Majko told the meeting, which opened in Sofia on Saturday.'It means that the mafia here has better links with the mafia in the West than we have with our colleagues in the West,' he added. Bulgaria's Centre for the Study of Democracy meanwhile submitted a report suggesting that organised crime in the region followed a geographical 'division of labour', with Albanians and Turks controlling the heroin trade while Serbian and Russian gangs specialise in contract killings.It said Albanian, Macedonian, Bulgarian and Turkish groups shared the spoils of human trafficking.While the Balkans' location between Asia and Europe made it a logical route for drugs and cheap labour, the crime problem had its political roots in the bitter wars that gripped the region in the 1990s, said James Pardew, US ambassador to Sofia.'(It) made the region especially susceptible to the influence of organised crime and corruption,' he said.'Arms smuggling, car theft, drug dealing and trafficking in people and passports are big-money cross-border activities that undermine national security as well as government reforms.'NATO Secretary-General George Roberton called on the future NATO members in the Balkans to 'root out crime and corruption and to establish the rule of law'.Bulgaria and Romania are among the seven ex-communist states scheduled to join the 19-member Atlantic alliance next May.Bulgaria's former ambassador to NATO, Boiko Noev, said the Balkans had become a smuggler's paradise because people had learned to find their way around the sanctions that had been imposed on Yugoslavia.'The problems of our borders will only disappear when they disappear with the integration of the region into the European Union. This, and not isolation, is the best way to resolve the crime situation,' he said.The Centre for Democracy's report said the Yugoslav elite had encouraged smuggling in order to get past embargoes and procure weapons and fuel from Bulgaria, Romania and Albania.These smuggling routes were later 'privatized' by members of the ruling elites, it said, becoming illegal trade routes for anything from stolen cars and cigarettes to cheap labour.The report concluded that measures to combat trafficking in the former Yugoslavia had failed because corrupt rulers had remained in power for too long, while in Romania, Bulgaria and Macedonia, changes in leadership 'led only to the change of people involved in the smuggling'.The meeting was attended by defence ministers from Albania, Croatia, Macedonia, Romania and Serbia-Montenegro as well as from NATO member Turkey.Author: VESSELA SERGUEVA