29 May 2008 - The Balkan area is, surprisingly, one of the safest in Europe. The report Crime and its Impact on the Balkans by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) belies enduring stereotypes of the region as a hotbed of organized crime and violence. People are as safe, or safer, on the streets and in their homes as they are in most parts of the world.
Released today, the study concludes that the Balkans have become a low-crime region after the decade-long turmoil that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia. But italso warns that links between business, politics and organized crime continue to hamper the region's path to stability.
"The vicious circle of political instability leading to crime, and vice versa, that plagued the Balkans in the 1990s has been broken", said the Executive Director of UNODC Antonio Maria Costa at the launch of the report. Yet, he warned, "the region remains vulnerable to instability caused by enduring links between business, politics and organized crime". The report makes three main points.
The UNODC report shows that, in general, levels of crime against people and property (like homicide, robbery, rape, burglary, and assault) are lower than in Western Europe, and the number of murders is falling throughout the region.
In fact, regional murder rates fell by almost a half from 2185 in 1998 to 1130 in 2006. Or consider these trends in violent crime: Albania's 2002 murder rate of six per 100,000 was about the same as the United States while Croatia had a lower murder rate than the United Kingdom. Romania was safer than Finland or Switzerland.
If we look at property crime, Western Europe has twice the rate of burglary and fifteen times as much robbery as South-East Europe
This positive trend has been particularly noticeable in the past few years. Even the number of Balkan nationals being held in Western European prisons has gone down.
This progress is likely to continue since the region lacks the usual vulnerabilities that lead to crime elsewhere in the world: mass poverty, income inequality, run-away urbanisation and large-scale youth unemployment.
Other factors also come into play. Greater regional stability and democracy have put an end to war profiteering. Assistance from the international community, particularly the European Union, has helped place the region on the path to a fast recovery. Closer integration with the rest of Europe has opened borders and reduced the lure of illicit trans-frontier trade.
Organized crime is also receding as a major threat. The smuggling of drugs, guns and human beings through the region is in decline, although the Balkans remain the premier transit zone for heroin destined for Western Europe (about 100 tons each year).
The UNODC report shows that serious challenges persist, particularly due to links between business, politics and crime. "The more that social and political conditions normalize, the more stability there will be within and between countries, and the more criminal groups will lose their grip", said Mr. Costa.
"Politics and business need to be better insulated from the corrosive influence of crime, especially economic crime", said Mr. Costa. Victim surveys indicate that, on average, South East Europeans are more likely to face demands for bribes than people in other regions of the world "Corruption should be treated as public enemy number one in order to strengthen integrity and justice, and increase political legitimacy and investor confidence".
He urged countries of the region to strengthen the rule of law, and called on the international community, particularly the European Union, to provide the support needed to further reduce vulnerability to crime and instability. He said that UNODC would increase its engagement in the region through technical assistance.
Yet, the study concludes: "Barring another major crisis, the trajectory is distinctly upwards".