Illegal weapons accumulated in the hands of Western Balkans citizens is a serious security threat.

By: Saša Đorđević (Belgrade Centre for Security Policy)

 By: Filip Stojanović (Public Policy Research Centre)

Western Balkans got yet another opportunity that must not be missed – to go from an exporter of a threat to an exporter of security for citizens by 2024. At the London Summit dedicated to the Western Balkans, a Roadmap was adopted to deal with the illegal possession, misuse, and smuggling of small arms and light weapons, which, if followed, can solve or at least reduce the problem of weapons that exist in the region.

The Roadmap was jointly developed by institutions from the region under the supervision of the German Federal Foreign Office and the South Eastern and Eastern Europe Clearinghouse for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons (SEESAC), coordinated by the United Kingdom, France, and the European Commission.

In Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, Serbia, and Kosovo, there are more than 6 million weapons according to the 2018 Small Arms Survey. On average, there are 30 weapons per 100 inhabitants. Nearly 90% of weapons are in the hands of citizens, which is above the world average – about 75%. It is believed that between 500.000 and 1.6 million households own firearms in the region. Obviously, citizens have too many weapons, more illegal than legal ones.

Table 1: Firearms in numbers
# of firearms in possession Military Police Civilians (total) Civilians (legal) Civilians
Per 100 population
Albania 21750 19000 350000 65747 284253 13.03
Bosnia and Herzegovina 27300 29000 1185000 353000 832000 31.24
Montenegro 5396 8000 245000 103536 141464 39.14
Macedonia 29530 21000 621000 169687 451313 29.79
Serbia 384422 53100 2719000 1186086 1532914 39.14
Kosovo 9500 21000 436000 43206 392794 23.80
Total and average: 477898 151100 5556000 1921262 3634738 29.36
Source: Small Arms Survey 2018

Serbia and Montenegro are leaders in this area as well. For every 100 citizens of these two countries, there are almost 40 light weapons. It is estimated that there are over 1.5 million illegal and 1.1 million legal weapons in Serbia alone. The accumulated quantities of illegal weapons in the hands of civilians are unequivocally one of the serious security problems for the neighborhood, state, region and Europe.

The problem of illegal possession and smuggling of firearms was intensified in the nineties when the weapons became easily accessible and uncontrolled due to the wars. Because of fear and mistrust in institutions, a large number of citizens purchased weapons in a legal or illegal way for personal protection. The accumulated amount of firearms in the Western Balkans still poses a serious security risk because these weapons are used on a daily basis for smuggling, organized crime, but also for various crimes or domestic homicide. Chronicles in newspapers are full of terrible crimes committed by firearms.

Roadmap makers recognized the proliferation of firearms as a serious security problem and believe that meeting the seven specific targets in the next six years can improve control and reduce accumulated surpluses of weapons and ammunition. The vision is simple: “safe Western Balkans”. It would also be useful to make the implementation of the Roadmap decisive and quick as was the arrangement of the leaders in the region who took only six months to agree that the weapons should again be the target of institutions.

Initially, the entire Western Balkans should legally align arms control rules with the standards that exist in the European Union. Immediately after that, the development of collection and processing of data about weapons is following in order to confirm precisely the risk areas and to provide answers aimed at solving the problem. For example, the response is sharper control when issuing a weapon license if it is known that half of the murders of women in Serbia is committed with legal weapons.

The fifth and sixth goal of the roadmap is targeted to systematically reduce the number of illegal firearms. Citizens should be able to go to the nearest police station and submit weapons without the obligation to prove the origin of the weapon or without liability if they have been obtained illegally. Seven rounds of the legalization of weapons have been carried out so far in Serbia. The problem is that citizens are less and less ready to surrender their weapons to the police. The Roadmap should solve this challenge.

Table 2: Results of the legalization campaign in Serbia
Year Weapons Ammunition
2003 82769 2226765
2007 8455 11566
2015 7545 160434
2016 1410 61755
2017 1104 57000
Total: 101283 2517520
Source: Serbian Ministry of Interior 2017

By legalization, a share of the weapons is placed under control and the possibility of abuse is reduced, but it does not affect those to whom the weapon is a “means of work”. A completely different approach is needed there. That is why the third and seventh goals of the roadmap are aimed at reducing the smuggling of firearms, ammunition, and explosives in and out of the Western Balkans, which is good. A certain amount of firearms melt into illegal flows most often by committing property crimes such as theft and later used for committing other crimes such as murder or smuggling through illegal flows.

In the illegal market, there is also a larger amount of explosives coming from the region, most commonly used for mafia standoffs. Smuggling is an extremely lucrative business. The automatic rifle in Serbia can cost 150-200 euros while the price on the Scandinavian Peninsula is about 2000-3000 euros. The price of a pistol in Serbia ranges from 100-1000 euros, and in the Western European market, it reaches 2000 euros. It is good that the roadmap creators have not forgotten the increased knowledge about the dangers of weapons, which is the key to reducing the negative consequences of weapons misuse.

At the London Summit, the Roadmap has become part of the Berlin Process, a diplomatic initiative related to the future enlargement of the European Union. This is important because by implementing the map, candidates and prospective candidates from the region will simultaneously fulfill the conditions for full membership in the European Union in the chapter on justice, freedom, and security. The unanimous adoption of the roadmap on weapons is an important step for peace in the region.

The Roadmap itself will not solve the problem of, for example, Serbia, which ranks third in the world in the number of owned small arms, if not implemented in practice. It is not enough to just say that Serbia is the leader in the region by the number of weapons destroyed, which is quite logical because the largest number of weapons is in Serbia, without mentioning other problems. That way, neither the plan is actualized nor is the long-term work done to increase the confidence of citizens.

It remains to be seen how much the region will really work on realizing the roadmap. It is important that this roadmap experiences the same or a similar fate as the one for visa liberalization when Serbian citizens were allowed to move freely in 26 different countries of Europe for three months without a visa. By achieving goals from the roadmap on weapons, the possibilities of innocent victims are reduced, security increases, and so does the citizens’ confidence in the institutions. Not bad.

The article was originally published in the NIN weekly in Serbian.

Translated by Olga Boškov.

TAGS: AlbaniaAnalysisBosnia and HerzegovinaExternal OversightKosovoMacedoniaMontenegroOrganized CrimeSerbiaWestern Balkans