Clare Nuttall in Bucharest -
The rise of an “Albanian mafia” with a reputation for closed ranks and extreme violence has aroused fear and suspicion in the West for years. Jana Arsovska’s book, “Decoding Albanian Organized Crime”, looks beyond the myth that Albanian traditions were behind the rise of organised crime both in Albania and abroad.
Originally from Macedonia, Arsovska relates how her study of Albanian organised crime originated from her personal experience as a victim of extortion by a local criminal group when she set up a coffee bar back in 2001, towards the end of a period of violent unrest in the region. Now an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Leuven specialising in transnational organised crime, she has thoroughly researched the causes of the explosion of criminal activity in Albania and Kosovo, which reached its peak between 1997 and 2001, and its spread abroad.
One of the key points made in her book is to debunk the myth that Albania is an inherently criminal society or that traditions – in particular the Kanun, a medieval code of honour that has enjoyed a revival since the collapse of communism – are the basis for criminal activity.
Arsovska’s interviews reveal socio-cultural confusion and a low level of understanding of the content and principles of the Kanun. This has, however, not stopped “scarily confused young men” from using the code to justify their actions. “The myth that the traditional Albanian ‘culture of violence’ and the customary Kanun laws have led to a drastic increase in organized crime in Albania is just that, a myth. Instead, it is life events or transitions that have positive or negative effect on people’s decision to get involved in organized crime,” Arsovska argues.
Albania’s transition to capitalism was among the harshest in the former Eastern Bloc. One of the world’s most isolated communist regimes, the socialist security blanket was suddenly ripped away at the same time as the population was exposed to Western media and advertising that illuminated the vast difference in the standards of living between Albania and Western Europe.
That is not to say criminal activity did not exist in the communist era; Arsovska points to links between the secret police, Sigurimi, and organised crime, and top-level agreements to allow Italian Mafiosi to store contraband cigarettes in Albanian airports. However, this involved only a small segment of society. Studies of Albanian émigrés before the mass migration in the 1990s also find little evidence of criminal activity.
Consequently, Arsovska believes that poverty, lack of opportunity and unemployment are the main causes of organised crime in Albania and Kosovo. In both countries, the formation of criminal organisations was accelerated by traumatic events in the late 1990s.
In Albania, huge pyramid schemes, many of them endorsed by government officials, started to collapse in 1997. Lax financial regulation and a lack of financial literacy led to around two-thirds of the entire population sinking an estimated $1.2bn into these schemes. Violent protests and demands for then president Sali Berisha, still an influential figure in Albanian politics today, to resign erupted into mass unrest, bringing the country to the verge of civil war.
The vigilante gangs formed during this period were the precursors of many later criminal organisations. “Violent groups created small armies for protection and to impose their influence on Albanian citizens, and rivalries between criminal gangs and individuals increases. Extortion, kidnapping, and corruption became common,” writes Arsovska.
The country was also flooded with firearms, as rebels looted army stockpiles in the south, while in the north Berisha opened depots to allow citizens to arm themselves against rebel groups. Virtually every man and boy over the age of 10 owned at least one firearm.
The collapse of the pyramid schemes also coincided with a “highly corrupt” privatisation campaign resulting in the closure of state firms and mass unemployment. Desperate Albanians, with no legitimate means to earn an income and trying to recover their lost savings, either emigrated or turned to crime; as a result, says Arsovska, “this period in Albania was marked by exceptionally high levels of violent crime, extreme poverty, and corruption.”
During the same period in neighbouring Yugoslavia, the late dictator Slobodan Milosevic’s repressive policies against the Kosovan minority intensified, leading to the formation of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). “There is little doubt that the seclusion of Albanians from the formal state apparatus, as well as the maintenance of a shadow government, all played a causal role in the rise of organized crime in Kosovo,” writes Arsovska, referring to criminal activities, in particular drug smuggling and extortion from the Kosovan diaspora, used to finance the KLA, which “depended on the financing provided by patriotic bandits across Europe and the United States.”
The ties forged during these traumatic events in the two countries have contributed to the situation where today, according to Arsovska, “a thin line divides politics, business, and organized crime structures in Kosovo and Albania.”
A large part of the book focuses on Albanian criminals abroad, who are typically involved in drug smuggling, human trafficking and prostitution, gaining a reputation for extreme violence even in comparison to other mafia groups. Arsovska profiles some of the most notorious including Basri Bajrami, a member of the Haemers gang that kidnapped former Belgian prime minister Paul Vanden Boeynants in 1989.
Here again, she looks at the discrepancy between myth and reality. Some like Besmir (a pseudonym), the Kosovo Albanian leader of a criminal group that specialised in the extortion of nightclubs, is believed to have collected around €15,000 a month for the KLA, fitting the profile of the “patriotic bandits”, whose “criminal activities were legitimized in the name of “nation building” and “ethnic survival”.
Many Albanian criminals too saw profiting from crime against “the West” as justifiable in a way that using violence at home was not. However, this does not fit, for example, with violent crime within Albania, or the way Albanian women have been trafficked, forced into prostitution and subjected to violence.
The concept of an “Albanian mafia” analogous to the Cosa Nostra is also revealed to be a myth. Instead, there are a number of individual criminal gangs made up of ethnic Albanians. Rather than being masterminded by criminal bosses back home, many Albanians entered a life of crime only after failing to find better options when they moved abroad.
Finally, Arsovska looks at Western perceptions of Albanians both a cause and a consequence of criminal activity abroad. She highlights the level of popular prejudice against Albanians and Kosovans, who are widely vilified in the media in the UK and other countries. This leads to the question of whether “the media’s descriptions, and Western law enforcement’s response to Albanian offenders, have led to the social exclusion of Albanian people, which in turn may have led to an increase in criminal activities among members of this ethnic group.”
“Decoding Albanian Organized Crime: Culture, Politics, and Globalization” by Jana Arsovska, University of California Press (2015).
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