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    • Power of Civil Society against Organized Crime

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    • Date: 14 June 2019

      Civil society and investigative journalists have an important role in monitoring and preventing organized crime and demanding accountability for convicting members of organized criminal groups, but they need a support network to do that, it was highlighted at the discussion Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime (GITOC) and Belgrade Centre for Security Policy (BCSP) organized on 14 June 2019 in Belgrade.

      The recently published report “Hotspots of organized crime in the Western Balkans: Local vulnerabilities in a regional context” was the starting point of the discussion. The first event was held in Belgrade, and presentations in other regional capitals will follow.

      Opening the event,BCSP Director Sonja Stojanovic Gajic emphasized that cooperation in Western Balkans can be great for economic development, but it can also open the path for organized crime. On the other hand, police cooperation in South Serbia, North Kosovo and North Macedonia is lacking.

      Organized crime and political and business environments are closely linked, Ugljesa Ugi Zvekic from GITOC pointed out. Violence, extortion, corruption and organized crime have infiltrated political and economic sectors.

      Zvekic elaborated on the economic, social and political context of Western Balkans. Economic situation in the Balkans is marked by high unemployment, emigration, and weak economy, while there is an authoritarian political style in the whole region. Politicians are positioning themselves as stabilocrats that are preventing tensions in the region from escalating, which is met by rising unrest and region-wide protests. Additional issues are unresolved conflicts and ethnic divisions in the region. Other factors include foreign influence in the region - bumpy road to EU accession, Chinese foreign direct investment, and influence of Russia, Turkey and the Gulf Countries, Zvekic said.

      Civil Society against Organized Crime

       “A place is particularly vulnerable to becoming an organized crime hotspot if there is economic vulnerability, weak governance and proximity to the border or a transit route,” Zvekic highlighted.

      Civil Society Observatory to Counter Organized Crime in South Eastern Europe aims to enable public discussion on organized crime between the state and civil society and include civil society to as a prevention mechanism, Zvekic explained.

      Fatjona Mejdini from GITOC added that there is a need for empowering civil society to monitor if the governments are fulfilling anti-corruption pledges given in the framework of the Berlin Process and to hold them accountable.

      Mejdini explained the report’s unique methodology and challenges.

      “There is very little information that can be analysed and compared from official statistics as countries across the region gather statistics differently. This report offers unique insight because it bridges hard data gathered from institutions and data from the field gathered by journalists and field researchers. It’s key to link the local, national and transnational elements of organized crime,” Mejdini concluded.

      State and Civil Society: Parallel Realities?

      BCSP Director highlighted that perspective of the government in Serbia is that the fight against criminal groups is thriving. Civil society takes these claims sceptically, since there are a high number of arrests, but the indictments and the lack of sentences demonstrate that there is very little actual engagement with organized crime, Stojanovic Gajic said.

      It appeared as if a larger operation against organized crime was taken in 2016, when the state struck a blow against organized crime and many people were arrested, KRIK editor-in-chief Stevan Dojcinovic explained. But it turned out that most of those arrested were “small fish“ and there was no judicial epilogue.

      In cases where serious criminals did get arrested, there were attempts not to prosecute them on organized crime but on tax evasion, Dojcinovic added. When that didn’t work either, they were prosecuted on smaller charges, like Dragoslav Kosmajac for owning land illegally. This was presented as a huge police operation to the public, but the case was dismissed in court.

      „Fight against organized crime is used as a means of raising popularity and ratings of the political elite. This is clear when politicians announce big crackdowns against criminal groups which don't lead to convictions in the end,“ Dojcinovic said.

      Investigative journalism is key for informing the public and showing what is missing from official statements, Dojcinovic emphasized. But journalists cannot follow up and file criminal charges, which is why activists need to bring attention of the public when there is no follow-up from the state after journalists present evidence. The role of civil society and journalists is to work together and constantly maintain pressure on state institutions to do their job.

      The audience comprising of civil society organizations and international community representatives was very engaged in the discussion that followed the panel.

      Marija Andjelkovic shared experiences ASTRA encountered in the area of fight against human trafficking. Last time there was a ruling against human trafficking as organized crime was in 2013. Serbian officials have shown that they don’t believe that the people involved trafficking are part of organized crime, but rather individuals assisting prostitution. Cases don’t even depend on political will, but on the will of an individual prosecutor.

      “Human trafficking is now qualified as something else. The victim is being told that she’s not a victim of human trafficking but involved in prostitution,” Andjelkovic pointed out.

      Resilience of Local Civil Society Organizations

      Milan Stefanovic from Protecta from Nis highlighted lack of access to international funds and pressure from local government as main issues that civil society organizations outside of Belgrade are dealing with.

      “The corrupt ruling elite are ruthless. If you try to touch on dangerous issues, such as organized crime, they will come after your family or your basic source of income. The systemic corruption is so far reaching,” Stefanovic warned.

      There are many stories like this across Serbia. That is why there needs to be an eco-system of support and protection, including media outlets, Stefanovic concluded.

      “This was the first presentation on the national level in the region. But it wasn’t meant to just show the report, but to also present focus on the local environment which are the key for change,” Zvekic said.

      Civil society organizations are a part of the society, not something coming outside. In order to count organized crime we need to build up civil society in the region, Zvekic concluded.

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