World News


Don’t Blame Refugees for Europe’s Problems. Blame the Balkans.

As Europe continues to struggle with the refugee crisis, politics in Eastern Europe have taken a worryingly anti-migrant tone as leaders blame the refugees for instability, crime, and terrorism in Europe. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said that “with illegal migration, terrorism came,” as he pointed the finger at the “welcome culture” of Western Europe. The president of the Czech Republic, Milos Zeman, has called Islam a “religion of death” and blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for coordinating the flow of refugees.

Tensions have only been made worse by the media in Eastern Europe which relentlessly portrays refugees as a danger. What these leaders apparently don’t realize is that it is not refugees who are the source of their problems. The so-called Visegrad group of Central European states that have been leading the European crusade against refugees are refusing to see that the turmoil they face originates not in the Middle East but in their own backyard.

To understand many of Europe’s problems, one need look no further than the Balkans, where poor governance and corruption have helped nurture a lucrative black market that afflicts the entire continent. For starters, the Balkans are at the center of a thriving illicit arms market. The region is still awash with arms from the tumultuous breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

According to one study, there are over 6 million privately owned firearms in the Balkans, mostly unregistered. The problem is most acute in Serbia, where there are 37.8 guns per 100 residents, the third highest rate in Europe. Now, these weapons – which include automatic rifles, hand grenades and mines – are sold and distributed in the black market all over the continent, with some being used in deadly terror attacks in Western Europe. The extremists who killed scores in last November’s Paris attacks carried AK-47s made by a Serbian arms manufacturer. Bosnian ammunition was used in the attack on Charlie Hebdo. Reda Kriket, who was arrested by French authorities in March for plotting a terror attack, was in possession of explosives and AK-47s originating in Croatia.

It is not just Western Europe where the guns are flowing. Since 2012, the Balkan states have been exporting arms abroad. Countries in the region have sold €1.2 billion worth of arms and ammunition to several Middle Eastern countries in the last four years. The arms, which include AK47s, heavy machine guns, anti-tank systems and grenade launchers, have gone to Jordan, the UAE, and Turkey, with the bulk going to Saudi Arabia. These arms are then being transported to war zones in Syria and Yemen, some of which have ended up in the hands of radical Islamist groups such as Ansar al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State. One study, which examined ammunition used by IS, found that 17% of the inspected ammunition originated in the Balkans. By exporting arms to the Middle East, the Balkan states are fueling the very wars that are driving the refugee crisis on their own shores.

It is not just arms from the Balkans that are flooding Europe’s black market. The region has become the source of much of the region’s illegal narcotics, with the situation in Albania particularly dire. The country is a major producer of drugs that are distributed all over the continent, and a key transit point for illicit substances coming from Asia.

The extent of the problem is illustrated by a recent raid in the lawless Albanian town of Lazarat, where authorities seized 102 tons of marijuana. The drug peddlers were frighteningly well armed, with an arsenal that included vast quantities of machine guns, grenades and RPGs. The raid required 800 police using helicopters and armored vehicles. Albania’s narcotics problem is abetted by corruption from the highest levels, with the Prime Minister and Interior Minister both having family members allegedly involved in drug trafficking. What’s worse, revenue from the illicit trade could be financing terrorism. There are reports that the Islamic State controls marijuana farms in the country.

While smuggling guns and drugs is nothing new for Eastern Europe’s criminal organizations, another illicit enterprise has recently emerged: migrant smuggling. Criminal organizations and even ordinary citizens in the Balkans, particularly in Bulgaria, have now taken to smuggling migrants into Western Europe, generating billions of dollars. So lucrative is the illicit business that it has become a key part of local economies in Eastern Europe, possibly generating even more revenue than the sale of drugs or weapons.

At the root of many of the Balkan’s problems is corruption, and perhaps nowhere in Europe is corruption worse than in Montenegro. Prime Minster Milo Djukanovic has turned the country into a kleptocracy and a haven for criminals while at the same time pursuing EU and NATO membership. Djukanovic has stolen billions from the tiny nation’s coffers, and organized crime has flourished under his watch, with the Prime Minster giving large loans to criminal organizations (and himself) participating in trafficking rings. So egregious are his abuses that the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) has satirically named Djukanovic “Person of the Year for his work in promoting crime, corruption and uncivil society.”

Montenegro has been dominated by a single party for decades, and has not had a genuinely competitive election since 1938 – but that stands to change on October 16th, when the country hosts parliamentary elections. The Democratic Front, the opposition alliance, stands a real shot at unseating Djukanovic. While the EU moves forward on Montenegro’s eventual integration into the union, a new government might be just the right way to correct the country’s erratic course.

As long as East European leaders blame refugees for their problems, it is unlikely that much will be solved. The Visegrad group is correct in claiming that the EU is in crisis, but by focusing their law and justice crusades on transforming the Union into a blown-up version of UKIP/FN, they are ignoring the true cause of many of Europe’s problems. Instead, they should focus their efforts on getting the EU to crack down on Bulgaria’s mafia rings, Albania’s drug traffickers, Montenegro’s absurdly dictatorial president and Serbia’s porous borders. It is certainly easier than pacifying the Middle East.