NEWS

Organized crime threat to Balkans, summit told

Balkan leaders yesterday described organized crime as the biggest threat to their region and called for international help to eventually join the European Union. Serbia’s new Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic said EU countries should help the Balkans deal with the problem of higher crime rates in Western Europe. «Investing in the security of borders and fighting organized crime is the best investment,» Zivkovic told a business conference in the seaside suburb of Vouliagmeni in Athens. «One euro spent in the Balkans will save 100 euros in Berlin and other cities.» He said organized crime had already resulted in the assassination of the pro-Western prime minister, Zoran Djindjic. Belgrade has blamed allies of Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslav president, for last month’s assassination. «They wanted to return to the darkness of the Milosevic regime. They have failed,» Zivkovic said. The prime ministers of Albania, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) and Serbia were at the conference, also attended by the vice president of Montenegro and senior officials from Bulgaria and Croatia. The gathering set the tone for a summit of Balkan leaders in Belgrade, Serbia, on April 9. «The murder of Djindjic was a very clear threat from organized crime to make the Balkans a dark island away from Europe,» FYROM Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski said. «We will fight organized crime ruthlessly and relentlessly.» Powerful criminal gangs – trafficking in guns, drugs and illegal immigrants – are active in Western Europe after emerging in the Balkans following a decade of war and unrest. At the conference, the leaders urged the European Union to give them a timetable for accession. The leaders also tried to paper over their differences regarding support for the US-led war against Iraq. That support has threatened to sour relations with such European Union powerhouses as France and Germany, which openly oppose war. Albania has pledged to send about 70 troops to Iraq, and Bulgaria counts itself among the coalition of the willing. «We should not be divided into Europe and the United States. It would be a great mistake,» Bulgarian Defense Minister Nikolay Svinarov said. Prime ministers Zivkovic, Nano and Crvenkovski met in Athens with Greek Premier Costas Simitis.