Hundreds of thousands of counterfeit cigarettes have been confiscated and police have arrested several suspects accused of smuggling across the region.
By Miki Trajkovski for Southeast European Times in Skopje -- 11/07/13
Cigarettes in the Balkans can only be purchased in authorised stores and must be sealed with tax stamps to prevent smuggling. [AFP]
Balkan countries are making significant advances against the illicit trade of counterfeit cigarettes, but the problem caused by organised criminal groups dealing tobacco products is far from solved, experts said.
"Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and all the countries in the region have been dealing successfully with organised crime [trafficking in] cigarettes," Pavle Trajanov, former internal affairs minister of Macedonia, told SETimes.
Trajanov explained many governments used to be involved in the illegal trade, but that is not the case today.
"The attempts to smuggle cigarettes have decreased because now they come from certain individual groups without sufficient capacity, and also our institutions have a better organised strategy at present," Trajanov said.
Officials said a more robust approach has resulted in the arrests of custom and police officers involved in the illicit trade. Last year Bulgarian police arrested a senior customs official suspected of smuggling 20 million cigarettes to Serbia.
The Serbian police organised numerous operations that resulted in confiscating 360,000 packs of counterfeit cigarettes shipped from Turkey this month.
Macedonian police said they disrupted a well-organised international group smuggling counterfeit cigarettes from Albania and Kosovo to Macedonia and further to Bulgaria.
"Members of the group deposited the cigarettes in warehouses in Skopje and the surrounding area or in auxiliary storage facilities near the Macedonian-Bulgarian border that they own," Gordana Jankulovska, internal affairs minister of Macedonia, said.
At just the Deve Bair border crossing with Serbia, Macedonian police confiscated nearly 600 counterfeit cigarette boxes at the beginning of this month with Kosovo and Macedonia tax stickers on them.
Albania and Kosovo currently are the major regional manufacturers of counterfeit cigarettes, according to Vladimir Pivovarov, former director of Macedonian military intelligence.
"It is a fact the main counterfeit cigarettes business is held by the Albanian mafia. A country faces the greatest danger of having such cigarettes end up on its territory if it has access to the sea. In the past, thousands of boxes of cigarettes were transported from Montenegro to Italy by sea with speedboats," Pivovarov told SETimes.
The Pristina government must improve co-operation with Kosovo's neighbours while regional countries must bring their full institutional capacities to bear in order to affect the illicit trade, according to Nedzbedin Mamudi, a professor at Pristina University.
"Criminals use Kosovo at the moment because of its central location in the Western Balkans, and often as a transit destination. But it is obvious this business in Kosovo is functioning perfectly and in order to reduce it, state officials need to function even better," Mamudi told SETimes.
Pivovarov explained the Macedonian authorities' robust response has forced organised groups to view Macedonia only as a transit country for smuggling cigarettes to Bulgaria, Romania and other EU countries.
"Macedonia is no longer a producer because the police arrested the main (organised crime) boss Bajrush Sejdiu and his clan. At the time, cigarettes were produced illegally in the Tobacco Company in Kumanovo he owned," Pivovarov said.
Experts said they expect the illicit cigarettes trade will cause losses of 60 million euros in Serbia and 30 million euros in BiH in 2013, and organised crime co-operation across the region must be met by similar co-operation in law enforcement.
"Criminal offenses must be harmonised because ... criminals [participate] from two or more states while trials sometimes occur only in one state," Svetlana Jovanovska, professor of criminology at the Security Faculty in Skopje, told SETimes.
Penalties for engaging or aiding illegal cigarette trade range from one to 10 years in prison in Macedonia, from six months to five years in Serbia, from three months to three years in Montenegro, and up to one year in Croatia.
Croatia has imposed the highest monetary fines of up to 250,000 euros if the tobacco products placed on the market lack valid tax stickers.
Will the Balkan countries succeed to further reduce the illegal cigarette trafficking? Tell us in the comments.