Skip to content
July 21, 2009 / jeni

Reading List: Transborder Crime in the Balkans

readingThe infamous Serbian war criminal Milan Lukic has been sentenced to life in prison by ICTY for his leading role in the crimes against humanity committed around Visegrad during the Bosnian war. Lukic evaded prosecution for many years due to his links with the same organised crime networks that financed and protected Karadzic, before a falling out led to his flight and eventual arrest in Argentina. An IWPR article provides some more background on his genocidal acts and postwar criminal ties.

In searching for more background on this, I came across this 2004 report by Marko Hajdinjak: The Root Cause of Instability in the Balkans: Ethnic Hatred or Transborder Crime? (pdf)

The 1990s were marked by the violent dissolution of Yugoslavia and a number of wars and ethnic conflicts in its successor states. This led countless experts to try to explain how and why did this happen. Three most common theories, which appeared were the theory about “ancient hatreds” between the Yugoslav nations, the theory about the political elites, who destroyed Yugoslavia to grab power in the successor states, and the theory about the total breakdown of socialist regime, which led to the outbreak of hostilities. What all these theories have in common is that they all view nationalism as the driving force behind the conflicts and that they, consequently, describe the conflicts and wars as ethnic conflicts.

This paper will argue that the root cause of instability and violence on the territory of former Yugoslavia is neither nationalism nor ethnic hatred, but crime. Specifically, what pushed former Yugoslavia into a succession of bloody wars was the symbiosis between authorities and organized crime during the process of creation of new states, which led to a permanent transformation of state/national interests into private ones, fostering the development of corrupt, non-transparent and crime-permeated societies.

Countless episodes and events, documented by numerous authors, researchers and, most importantly, the UN Commission of Experts, which compiled thousands of pages of material about the war, demonstrate that the driving force behind the destruction of Yugoslavia was not nationalism, but greed. Nationalism is a powerful force, which indeed fuels many wars, but its ability to ignite a war in the first place should be seriously questioned. In the case of Yugoslavia, nationalism was rather used as a mask under which a thorough criminalization of post-Yugoslav societies was hidden. War provided the perfect smoke screen behind which the ruling elites and the criminal underworld, hand in hand, grabbed total political and economic power in Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. It diverted the attention of the general public to the threat, coming from the demonised “other” (Croat, Serb, or Muslim) for as long as possible, or better said, for as long as there was something left to rob.

Despite the extreme nationalism and increased ethnic distrust, which engulfed Yugoslavia in the late 1980s, the war would not have broken out without gangs of criminals actually starting with their “kill, steal and burn” campaign. The money, made through sales of the “war booty,” sanction-breaking, arms selling, oil smuggling, extortion and racketeering in besieged cities, “taxes” and “duties” imposed on the passage of humanitarian convoys and fees collected for the evacuation of refugees were much more important to those who started and led the war than were some alleged nationalistic goals. The best proof that profit-making and not nationalism was the prime mover during the war is the fact that all warring sides extensively traded with each other throughout the war, weapons, ammunition and oil being the most common objects of trade.



Leave a Comment
  1. adrianljohnson / Aug 6 2009 12:35

    It always annoys me when the words “nationalism”, “ethnic” and so on always thrown around in the Yugoslav context as exotic explanatory variables (and conversely an academic industry has sprung up to counter the traditional theses, blaming everything from the Croatian diaspora to the IMF)?

    The fact is that despite the presence of criminals and freebooters, the collapse of Yugoslavia was due to long-running political disagreements. The Serbian Academy of Arts and Science’s infamous paper was the work of bespectacled intellectuals; the Croatian spring of 1971 was most assuredly not the result of “gangs of criminals”; and one would have to struggle to apply such a framework to the crises of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and the devestating intercommunal and interideological fighting of the Second World War.

    So while Serbs, Croats, Muslims etc did for large parts of its history accept each other’s customs and live side by side, the underlying tension within the Yugoslav idea was never resolved: how to reconcile the national aspirations of the Croats, Slovenes and Serbs – especially in the mix that is Bosnia and Herzegovina.

    Of course, because of the abuse of the word “ethnic” to imply some sort of primordial bloodlust, the national aspirations of the factions seem to be sidelined in the literature. Perhaps, the Yugoslav wars were in fact a touch more banal than often presented.

    And for all the presence of criminal gangs, let’s remember than it was the JNA that ran roughshod over a third of Croatia until its armoured thrust in Slavonia was blunted at Vukovar.

    “The best proof that profit-making and not nationalism was the prime mover during the war is the fact that all warring sides extensively traded with each other throughout the war, weapons, ammunition and oil being the most common objects of trade.”

    Which is pretty weak inferential proof. Why are the resulting governmental units pretty much along the lines of nationality?

    I guess what I’m saying is that we should be very careful not to overplay the criminal element in what are often actually quite political conflicts.

    • Tom Hill / Aug 6 2009 14:46

      Hi Adrian,

      I totally agree that we shouldn’t downplay politics in favour of crime. It reminds me of the rebel-centric analyses of Collier and co which stressed insurgents not as political entities but as criminal ones without legitimacy.

      What we are keen to stress here at CCN is not that political conflicts should be overturned conceptually and understood as ‘criminal’ in any normative sense, but that features of these conflicts often labelled ‘criminal’ should be far more incorporated into political analyses. What I want to see more of is less of a dichotomy and more of a unitary approach to conflict analysis, that accepts conflict as conflict, and accepts it as always multilayered and multifaceted.

      • Tom Hill / Aug 6 2009 14:54

        PS I also totally agree that the Hajdinjak comment you flag up is dum. As Mats Berdal kept pointing out when we were back in class, Serbian criminals involved in a range of illict activities for the majority of the time often were still also found to harbour deep committment to a Serbian nationalist ideology. The fact is people’s thoughts and activities are never that simple or limited to just one thing. Hence arguments like that of Hajdinjak’s just don’t wash.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s