EU isolation has created a dangerous power vacuum in Balkans and Eastern Europe that has been filled by Saudi Arabia, UAE, China and Russia, warns a major new report on the arms trade in the region.
The report from the Tactics Institute for Security and Counter Terrorism, says this change in the relationship between the EU and Balkans can be seen in the manufacture and sale of arms in the region. In 2017 the UAE emerged as the single most crucial contractor for the Serbian defence industry in terms of exports, with a net value of contracts worth $138 million for that year alone, while Saudi Arabia was in third place, with contracts worth an estimated $62 million.
It blames a combination of factors for the change in policy towards the Balkans including "internal EU fatigue", "divergent member-state interests", "Brexit" and a French Veto on EU enlargement. This it says has called into question "…any attempt to align the region's industrial interests with those of an elusive greater community," throwing the prospect of NATO/EU expansion along with the process of economic, social, political and military transformation into reverse.
The report's authors, which include senior military analyst Brigadier-General Metodi Hadji-Janev, foreign policy expert Ivan Fischer, investigative journalist Vojkan Kostic and UK academic Thomas Charles, warn that many of these weapons end up in Libya, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Eritrea and other conflict zones - before finding their way to organised criminal groups and terrorists operating across Europe in the reuse-recycle flow from the Balkans to Europe.
It continues that there is no single country in the Balkans that has not exported arms to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have then in turn been diverted to militias. "According to a 2018 report by the South Eastern and Eastern Europe Clearinghouse for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons, the KSA is the biggest buyer of weapons in the Western Balkans. Following substantial indirect investment in Serbian arms manufacturing by the UAE, the country is the leading defence systems exporter in the region, followed by Bosnia, Albania, North Macedonia and Montenegro. And EU member states Bulgaria and Croatia are also major players in this burgeoning market.
"Bulgarian rifles exported to the UAE and Saudi Arabia have been diverted to Syria, Libya, Yemen and Sudan. A wider range of Croatian infantry weapons have been diverted from Saudi Arabia to Syrian anti-government militias, many of whom are listed as terrorist groups. Leaked documents of the Serbian state-owned arms manufacturer Krusik document the link between Saudi, Emirati, and US officials with arms supplies to ISIS-linked militias in Yemen. Albanian assault rifles and ammunition have ended up in the hands of the Haftar regime in Benghazi on flights cleared by the Emirati Air Force. Similar diversions have taken place for weapons intended for Egypt, Jordan, and Indonesia."
It continues: "In time, successive Europol reports have made clear that the two channels could become a single reuse-recycle flow from the Balkans to Europe. Much like weapons during the Yugoslavia succession wars continue to supply criminal networks in Western Europe, one should assume that weapons scattered across conflict areas in the Middle East could, in time, will return.
"The most emblematic incident in which weapons operating from the Balkans were used within the EU was the Paris attacks of 13 November, 2015, in which 130 people were killed and 413 injured. The attackers used two AK47 Kalashnikov derivatives - the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) standard issue assault rifle M70, produced by Kragujevac-based Zastava factory, and the Chinese Model 56 variant, most likely produced in Albania."
The report goes on to highlight that the terrorists who carried out the Charlie Hebdo attack were also armed with Balkan-made M70 rifles.
Thomas Charles the director of the Tactics Institute commented: "EU isolationism, along with President Trump's America First policy has thrown into reverse nearly 30 years of NATO/EU engagement and enlargement that followed the collapse of communism. Commitments made at the Zagreb Conference in 2000 and reaffirmed at Thessalonki Summit of integrating the Western Balkans have largely been abandoned, leaving a power vacuum. This has been exploited by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, China and Russia, which have poured money into these relatively small, economically weak states. By investing in the manufacture and sale of arms, they have effectively bought both economic and political influence.
"Worryingly both the KSA and UAE are using this influence to divert weapons to conflict zones including Yemen and Syria, where they are engaged in a series of proxy wars with the aim of increasing their political and national influence in the MENA region (the Middle East and North Africa). It is highly likely that before long these weapons will return to the region into the hands of organised criminal gangs and terrorists who operate on our streets. This is why firm action needs to be taken to control and regulate this deadly trade of arms."
The report concludes by laying out a series of recommendations, which the authors believe will start to reverse the current situation including end-use monitoring and verification, better information exchange, blacklisting and supporting the media to hold the secretive arms trade in check.
Mr Charles concluded: "Even though the UK has left the EU if we are to tackle the appalling situation where arms from Europe's hinterland are fuelling the worlds conflict zones, then we must work with the EU27 to regulate, monitor and take action against weapons manufacturers in the Balkans. More than this, we must collectively pressure Saudi Arabia and the UAE to end their clandestine supply of weapons to conflict zones, which are then used indiscriminately on combatants and innocent civilians alike."
For media enquiries or for a copy of the report, please contact Alistair Thompson on 07970 162 225.
Notes to editors:
The Tactics Institute for Security and Counter Terrorism is an independent, non-partisan, think tank.
It brings together experience in social services, cybersecurity, legal expertise and a pool of experts with procurement, military operations and areas studies expertise. Providing contextually sensitive support for decision makers, whilst also aspiring to opening new public debates on security policy.
It focuses on politically motivated transnational crime, with reports and events designed to guide risk assessment, social and security policy. Going beyond a cause-effect approach, it seeks to identify the political and social context in which terrorist threats evolve, without shying away from questions of social and economic significance.
To make a significant contribution to the discrediting of violence as a means of political struggle by supporting security options that bolster open, pluralistic, and cohesive societies governed by the rule of law.