UN: Balkans safer than western Europe

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A decade after the wars that tore apart the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, most of the Balkans is safer than western Europe, the United Nations said in a report on Thursday.

Levels of homicide, rape, assault, robbery and burglary were all lower in the region than elsewhere in Europe, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said, citing the benefits of the relative political and economic stability of recent years. The one black spot remained organized crime and particularly the region’s role in heroin trafficking, it said, calling for more cross-border cooperation between national police forces. “This report shows that, at present, the levels of crime against people and property are lower than elsewhere in Europe, and the number of murders is falling in every Balkan country,” UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa said.

Costa said there was widespread collusion between business, politics and organized crime, but that security sector reform and improved criminal justice were making it riskier and less profitable. “The stereotype of the Balkans as a gangsters’ paradise no longer applies -- though serious problems remain,” he said in the report, presented at a news conference in Brussels. The report, based on UN and national police data, covered nine countries: Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia and new EU members Romania and Bulgaria. The others are at varying stages of the lengthy EU accession process, with Bosnia due to start the first step next month.

Reported murders in the region virtually halved from 2,185 in 1998 to 1,130 in 2006, the report found. Costa said the lack of large-scale youth unemployment, steep income inequality and runaway urbanization meant the basic conditions for high crime did not exist and the benign trend would continue as living standards increased. The report said the trend would depend on improving the rule of law, governance and implementing the reform priorities the European Union has made conditions for EU accession.

Analysts point to continuing political instability as the major obstacle to foreign investment in the Balkans. Serbia’s government was initially set to launch a tender for local carmaker Zastava in April, but its plans changed when the government collapsed in March and an early election was called. Officials said the deal then received a boost when Serbia signed a pre-accession pact with the European Union last month, which once implemented will lead to improved trade ties. Shortly after this, Italy’s Fiat announced plans to team up with the government to invest a combined €700 million ($1.09 billion) to produce two new car models at Zastava. Risks to Western businesses though were underlined, when Western stores and restaurants were vandalized in protests after the Western-backed secession of Kosovo from Serbia in February. (Reuters)

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