The "Balkan Medellin"

Published on February 1, 1995, Jane's Intelligence Review

Category: Islamic Terror in Kosovo

BYLINE: Marko Milivojevic

Introduction The Albanian-dominated region of western Macedonia accounts for a disproportionate share of the Macedonia's (FYROM) shrinking GDP. This situation has strengthened Albanophobic sentiments among the ethnic Macedonian majority, especially as a great deal of revenue is thought to derive from Albanian narco-terrorism as well as associated gun-running and cross-border smuggling to and from Albania, Bulgaria and the Kosovo province of Serbia. Although its extent and forms remain in dispute, this rising Albanian economic power is helping to turn the Balkans into a hub of criminality. Albanian Narco-Terrorism Previously transported to Western Europe through former Yugoslavia, heroin from Turkey, the Transcaucasus and points further east is now being increasingly routed to Italy via the Black Sea, Albania, Bulgaria and Macedonia. This is a development that has strengthened the Albanian mafia which is now thought to control 70 per cent of the illegal heroin market in Germany and Switzerland. Closely allied to the powerful Sicilian mafia, the Albanian associates have also greatly benefitted from the presence of large numbers of mainly Kosovar Albanians in a number of West European countries; Switzerland alone now has over 100000 ethnic Albanian residents. As well as providing a perfect cover for Albanian criminals, this diaspora is also a useful source of income for racketeers. Socially organized in extended families bound together in clan alliances, Kosovar Albanians dominate the Albanian mafia in the southern Balkans. Other than Kosovo, the Albanian mafia is also active in northern Albania and western Macedonia. In this context, the so-called 'Balkan Medellin' is made up of a number of geographically connected border towns, namely Veliki Trnovac and Blastica in Serbia, Vratnica in Macedonia, and Gostivar in Albania. Further afield, the Albanian mafia also has a strong presence in: Pristina, the capital of Kosovo; Skopje, the capital of Macedonia; Shkoder, the second largest city in Albania and its northern provincial capital; and Durres, Albania's main port and maritime link to nearby Italy across the Adriatic Sea. As for heroin processing locally, the Albanian mafia now reportedly runs at least two secret facilities in Macedonia, which is also the key regional transportation crossroads for the trans-shipment of heroin from Bulgaria to Albania. Heroin shipments are thought to be mostly moved overland by a number of seemingly legitimate international trucking and freight-forwarding companies in Albania, Bulgaria and Macedonia. High-level corruption, widespread local poverty, a tradition of cross-border smuggling and poor policing throughout the region have all aided the recent rise of the Albanian mafia. In Macedonia, local drug-trafficking is now out of control, a fact which no doubt explains why the Macedonian police have recently turned to Italy for assistance in this area of law enforcement. In this context, the Italian national police mounted a major 10-month joint operation with their Macedonian counterparts in Skopje in 1993-94. Codenamed 'Macedonia', this operation reportedly involved intensive surveillance of known Kosovar Albanian drug-traffickers in the Macedonian capital. Here, a joint Italian-Macedonian police swoop resulted in the seizure of 42 kg of pure heroin in May 1994. In terms of the quantity of heroin now routinely transiting Macedonia, however, the Skopje seizure was insignificant. Operationally, larger seizures of such controlled substances are ultimately dependent on co-operation from the police in nearby Serbia and Albania. To date, they have proved remarkably unhelpful. If left unchecked, this growing Albanian narco-terrorism could lead to a Colombian syndrome in the southern Balkans, or the emergence of a situation in which the Albanian mafia becomes powerful enough to control one or more states in the region. In practical terms, this will involve either Albania or Macedonia, or both. Politically, this is now being done by channelling growing foreign exchange (forex) profits from narco-terrorism into local governments and political parties. In Albania, the ruling Democratic Party (DP) led by President Sali Berisha is now widely suspected of tacitly tolerating and even directly profiting from drug-trafficking for wider politico-economic reasons, namely the financing of secessionist political parties and other groupings in Kosovo and Macedonia. In Macedonia, the Party for Democratic Prosperity (PDP) and other ethnic Albanian political parties, such as the ultra-nationalistic National Democratic Party (NDP), are almost certainly in receipt of laundered Albanian forex profits from narco-terrorism. These have also been reportedly used for the bribing of corrupt Macedonian government officials and police. More generally, Kosovo and western Macedonia are both suspiciously well endowed in forex. This can only realistically have come from criminal enterprises, given the widespread poverty of these two connected areas in the Yugoslav period. A similar state of affairs exists in nearby Albania, which is not as poor in forex as its government likes to pretend. In all three cases, this criminally generated forex is often disguised as emigree remittances; these totalled over US$500 million in Albania alone in 1993. If Kosovo and Macedonia are included, then total Albanian forex from narco-terrorism going into the southern Balkans in 1993 could have been as high as US$1 billion. Other than buying the Albanian mafia political protection and influence, and a certain spurious popular legitimacy for its alleged patriotism, this laundered drug money is now being increasingly used in an associated activity, namely gun-running among the region's ethnic Albanians. Balkan Arms Bazaar Bizarre even by the murky standards of the Balkans, the recent trial in Skopje of 10 ethnic Albanians charged with 'conspiracy to form military formations' revealed the extent of illegal gun-running at the highest levels in Macedonia. Politically, what made this trial significant was the public standing of some of its defendants. In this context, the then Macedonian interior minister, Ljubomir Frckovski, ordered the arrest in late 1993 of two leading members of the PDP, which was in government in Skopje. The two alleged high-level gun-runners were Midhat Emini, the then president of the PDP, and Husein Haskaj, the then deputy defence minister in the government of Premier Branko Crvenkovski. Given the immense political implications of these arrests and the trial that followed on from them in 1994, Frckovski could only have acted in the way that he did for the most compelling of reasons. All of this meant that top PDP leaders were then involved in the illegal importation of armaments purchased in Albania, Bulgaria, Serbia and the West. These activities must have involved the local Albanian mafia, which is itself heavily armed with sophisticated weaponry purchased with the profits from narco-terrorism. This may have indicated that the PDP and the NDP were tiring of parliamentary politics in Skopje and preparing other options to advance their cause, namely an armed uprising of some sort. In the case of the main ethnic Albanian political party in Macedonia, the PDP, this interpretation was later given added credence when its formally relatively moderate leadership was ousted by a radical ultra-nationalist faction in a palace revolution orchestrated by the DP government in Albania. Significantly, this development took place just after the public trial of the two top PDP leaders charged with illegal gun-running. Currently led by two noted ultra-nationalists, Abdurahman Haliti and Medhuh Thaci, the PDP can thus no longer be regarded as a purely constitutional party. In practice, it is also a secret party-militia, tainted with Albanian narco-terrorist connections. This is even more true of the NDP which is now close to becoming a terrorist organization. In addition, both these parties are now also directly controlled by nearby Albania where the SHIK secret police is known to be heavily implicated in both working with the Albanian mafia and cross-border gun-running into Macedonia and Kosovo. For all these reasons, the PDP and the NDP may eventually be formally proscribed by the Skopje government. Despite its recent poor performance in the October 1994 elections (see article on pp 64-67), the VMRO-DPMNE aims to profit from such worsening inter-ethnic tensions in the future. Already, it is openly advocating the use of repressive and violent options against the ethnic Albanian minority. In this context, the VMRO-DPMNE is itself suspected of secretly arming its ultra-nationalistic membership with the assistance of influential VMRO irredentist forces in nearby Bulgaria. Sofia has a notorious reputation for selling armaments to anybody who can pay for them, including virtually all the parties in the ongoing civil war in the former Yugoslavia. Regional Sanctions Breaking Effectively trapped between two stronger anti-Macedonian states, namely Serbia and Greece, Macedonia has effectively been compelled to break the trade embargo imposed by the UN against rump Yugoslavia in 1992. In the case of Serbia, Macedonia was closely bound to it economically during the Yugoslav period. Breaking all these economic links, as demanded by the UN Security Council, has proved impossible in practice. Initially tolerated by the international community, the Macedonian sanctions-breaking has recently reached significant levels, particularly after the UN lifted some of its non-economic sanctions against rump Yugoslavia in 1994. For all practical purposes, there is no longer even the pretence of Macedonian compliance with the UN's sanctions regime against rump Yugoslavia. Other than Greece, Albania and Bulgaria also reportedly make extensive use of Macedonia for their own sanctions-breaking activities in relation to rump Yugoslavia. Economically, it is now an open secret in Skopje that Macedonia would have completely collapsed long ago had it attempted to avoid such regional sanctions-busting. In this context, matters became critical for Macedonia when Greece, in a move clearly closely co-ordinated with Serbia, imposed an economic blockade against the country in March 1994. This immediately cut off Macedonia from the Greek port of Thessaloniki, thereby increasing its economic dependence on Serbia. The only alternative link to the outside world, via nearby Albania and Bulgaria, was also uncertain. In the case of Albania, this was mainly due to a worsening of relations between Skopje and Tirane over the issue of the ethnic Albanians in western Macedonia. As regards Bulgaria, there were also political problems, notably those pertaining to Sofia's ambivalent recognition of Macedonia as a separate Macedonian state but not as the homeland of a separate Macedonian nation distinct from Bulgaria. In addition, the main east-west communications routes to Albania and Bulgaria are very poorly developed, thereby limiting the amount of freight traffic they can handle. Politically, this illegal Greco-Serbian economic pressure against Macedonia has resulted in a more conciliatory stance by the Skopje government towards Athens and Belgrade. Officials in these capitals would like to see Macedonia reincorporated into a third and Serb-dominated Yugoslavia. Domestically, such a scenario is now being made more probable by local socio-economic collapse and the worsening conflict between the ethnic Macedonian majority and the ethnic Albanian minority population in western Macedonia. Longer term, this could conceivably lead to local participation in a proposed regional anti-Albanian and anti-Muslim 'Orthodox Alliance' between Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia and Serbia. Already openly advocated by VMRO-DPMNE, such a scenario would become more probable if Macedonia descends into an inter-ethnic civil war or outright partition furthered by its stronger and hostile neighbours. Marko Milivojevic is member of the Research Unit in South East European Studies at the University of Bradford, UK. GRAPHIC: Photograph 1, UN soldiers patrol a queue of vehicles which are waiting to be checked for embargoed goods prior to entering Serbia from Macedonia.; (Photograph 2, AP)

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