Balkans: November 28, 2003


It is estimated that from 100,000 to 170,000 people out of Macedonias population of 2.1 million have illegal small arms. The plural weapons is important. 700,000 is one common figure (described as official) for the number of illegal weapons in Macedonia. The 700,000 figure is an official estimate. Other sources say the figure is 300,000. The important point for law enforcement is that many of these illegal weapons are military automatic rifles and light machine guns, not hunting rifles and shotguns. This is firepower that can challenge internal security forces. Many of those military small arms came from Albania after at least 1300 Enver Hodja-era Albanian arms depots were looted in 1997.  Hodja intended to fight either a Soviet or NATO invasion with a peoples resistance strategy and arms bunkers were scattered throughout Albania. The Albanian government admitted that over a half million weapons disappeared in the looting. The 500,000 missing weapons figure is regarded by many as a best guess there may have been 650,000 stolen. Albania accounted for 200,000 of the stolen weapons. That is a new figure for recovered weapons, but not one that provides a great deal of confidence in Albanian police efforts. NATO peacekeepers collected approximately 3,500 weapons from the NLA (National Liberation Army Albanian guerrilla group in Macedonia) during NATOs weapons collection operation in 2002, but UN and regional police officials say radical Albanian groups still operating in Macedonia (like the ANA) can easily get arms and ammunition from supporters in Kosovo and Albania. The ANA is also active in Kosovo and south Serbia. These same sources report the ANA draws extensive support from Balkan criminal gangs. The move from Balkan revolutionary and Balkan smuggler has historically been and easy and common transition. The NATO weapons collection operation in Macedonia was a political necessity, a program to help reinforce public confidence in the Ohrid peace agreement. However, given the availability of small arms, collecting only 3,500 weapons has to be regarded as a failure. The Macedonian government reports say that in Macedonia 71 people have been killed by firearms in 2003 (through October). In 2002 84 people were murdered in Macedonia with firearms. One NGO reported that Macedonia, as a result, has Europes highest gun-related crime rate. We tried to verify the claim and if crime rate means murder by firearm, that may be the case though some of the killings in 2002 were arguably political and associated with the guerrilla conflict. Act or war or criminal act? Statistics get mired in the murk of connections between Balkan revolutionary politics and organized crime. At some point it no longer matters --- violent crime itself becomes a major political problem for the struggling Macedonian government. Macedonia, Greece, and Albania have recognized the criminal threat to stability and the governments say they intend to cooperate more extensively to stop cross-border crime. (Austin Bay) 




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