BELGRADE -- The recent arrest of Islamic radicals in Bosnia, and their subsequent deportation, have rekindled concerns that the Balkans could become a staging ground for al Qaeda. For the time being, these fears are misplaced. Terrorist cells can sprout in dank corners everywhere, to be sure, but the Balkans need not become a likely place for these groups, despite being home to Europe's only native Muslim population. Countries in the Balkans need help, however, in making sure this remains the case.
Residents of the region are already not prone to sympathize with Osama bin Laden or his call for jihad. On the contrary, they aspire to become part of Europe, and to that end they are trying to conform their legal systems to European standards and taking steps to strengthen the administration of justice. The West has an interest in assisting this process.
A robust rule of law is essential to consolidating democracy and effective governance. Integrating the Balkans into Europe would stabilize the region and establish the Balkans as an effective buffer against terrorism. As evidenced by the proliferation of Mafia activity in Chechnya and other parts of the Caucasus, organized crime soon fills the vacuum created by general lawlessness, creating a hospitable environment for terror groups.
An effective justice system nips the whole process in the bud by confronting corruption, prosecuting organized crime and eliminating conditions conducive to terrorist activity. After a decade of ethnic conflict, the imposition of the rule of law would also ensure a durable peace by preventing the reemergence of authoritarian power structures, advancing reconciliation and guaranteeing security regardless of ethnicity.
Though the region is likely not a haven for terrorist networks, the truth is that ex-Yugoslav states still have fragile legal systems that lack the capacity to be fully effective in the war against terror. In the 1990s, criminal organizations became deeply entrenched in the Balkans. Hyperinflation and collapsing national economies contributed to organized crime and corruption. Transporting illegal commodities up and down the Danube, criminal syndicates took advantage of the international embargo to profit from black-market activities, such as weapons sales and human trafficking, as well as dealing in scarce consumer commodities such as cigarettes and petrol.
The war environment also rendered good governance impossible. Gangs did fill the vacuum created by borderline failed states. Many gang members, such as the Serbian Arkan, who led the notorious paramilitary group known as the Tigers before being gunned down in 2000, also committed atrocities and war crimes.
Government officials often had close ties with underworld figures and political parties were run like Mafia families. Crooked politicians robbed state-owned corporations to support their activities. Many were involved in bogus privatization schemes, money laundering, smuggling and pilfering of federal customs. The resulting illicit economy was deeply corrosive to the development of democratic political institutions.
Today a new generation of pro-Western leaders, like Zoran Djindjic in Serbia, has emerged throughout the Balkans. These stewards of democratic development need assistance to break the ties criminal groups have with financial, governmental and legal circles. The gangsters of course use these connections to manipulate the system, preserve their power and frustrate the establishment of legitimate government institutions. Addressing the problem of organized crime will require a concerted and coordinated commitment by national governments, regional bodies and international organizations.
Effective national efforts start with the creation of anticrime task forces having a well-defined mission and clear accountability. Task-force members should be governed by codes of conduct and thoroughly vetted. To promote professionalism, officials at every level of the justice system should be paid an adequate salary. Police, prosecutors and judges also need special training in criminal, investigative and surveillance procedures. In addition, task forces must be able to attack criminal syndicates by targeting their revenue streams, seizing assets and closing banks linked to money laundering.
To further create an enabling environment, the different Balkan states should pay more attention to the orderly return of refugees and to economic development. The governments should be channeling more assistance to the return and reintegration of populations displaced by conflict, since the longer they remain refugees the more they are vulnerable to criminal ventures.
Organized crime in Albania proliferated when displaced Kosovars linked up with the country's underground economy. Governments thus should replace legislation that now allows discriminatory practices and commit themselves to resolving property and housing problems faced by returnees.For example, effective efforts are under way to enable ethnic Serbs to reclaim their apartments in Sarajevo. In addition, transparent privatization and investment regulations should be created in order to stimulate legitimate economic activity, establish conditions for foreign investment and create jobs.
Organized criminal networks operate without regard to national sovereignty. Since any country can claim jurisdiction when criminal activity crosses its border, regional protocols should be established enabling the sharing of information between police and customs officers, as well as other forms of cross-border cooperation. Procedures for transferring banking records and asset seizure should be developed. Crime-fightin g efforts in the Balkans would be advanced through cooperation with European organizations promoting cross-border anticrime efforts, such as Eurojust, or via stabilization and association agreements with the European Union, which stipulate legal standards for EU candidates.
As demonstrated by the world-wide network of banks and businesses with ties to Al Qaeda, organized crime in the Balkans has implications well beyond Southeast Europe. A coordinated and comprehensive effort is needed to formalize global cooperation. International treaties could help institutionali ze mutual legal assistance, such as search, arrest and extradition procedures. To expand their global reach, Balkan states should work with Interpol as well as other global law-enforcement agencies.
Balkan countries are increasingly committed to limit organized crime and penetration by terror groups. The six detainees that Bosnia transferred last month to American custody were apprehended during a crackdown against religious extremists suspected of targeting U.S. interests. In Kosovo, Muslim charities with potential ties to terrorist financial networks have been shut down.
Croatia is expanding patrols along its extensive Adriatic coastline, which serves as an ideal transit point for smuggling. And the arrest and now-commencing trial of Slobodan Milosevic are important steps toward dismantling the criminality, corruption and cronyism, which has pervaded Serbian society.
The Bush administration came into office looking to accelerate its disengagement from the Balkans. But after September 11, America has a renewed interest in assisting emerging democracies and consolidating postconflict peace-building in Southeastern Europe. Neglecting the Balkans would increase prospects for instability and create fertile ground for terrorist networks.
David L. Phillips is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Center for Preventive Action of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.