A report from the Tactics Institute for Security & Counter Terrorism (TISCT), an independent think-tank that deals with public security policy, states EU isolationism is creating a power vacuum in the Balkans.

The report, which looks at the arms trade in the region, warns this could have dangerous consequences for Europe as a whole as Saudi Arabian, UAE, Chinese and Russian interests move in to fill the void.

Brexit as a destabilising force

Countries in the Balkans are suffering due to EU policy changes, the report states. These include a French veto on EU enlargement, President Trump’s America First policy and break-up with NATO, and conflicting interests among EU member states. Brexit also acted as a destabilising force, emboldening isolationist tendencies across the union, the report states. 

This combination of factors has thrown the almost three decades of beneficial NATO/EU involvement in the area’s economic, social, political and military transformation following the collapse of Communism into reverse.

According to the report, this can be seen in the manufacture and sale of arms in the Balkans. In 2017, the UAE emerged as the most crucial contractor for the Serbian defence industry in terms of exports, with Saudi Arabia in third place. Many of those weapons will be used in conflict zones across North Africa and the Middle East before finding their way into the hands of organised criminal groups and terrorists operating in Europe.

The South Eastern and Eastern Europe Clearinghouse for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons stated in 2018 that Saudi Arabia is the biggest buyer of weapons in the Western Balkans. Indeed, all countries in the area export arms to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, while EU member states Bulgaria and Croatia are also becoming involved.

Photo by David von Diemar on Unsplash

The life cycle of illegal weapons

The life cycle of illicitly traded, Balkan-produced weapons might look something like this. Bulgarian rifles exported to the UAE and Saudi Arabia get diverted to supply proxy wars in Syria and Yemen. They eventually make their way back into Europe via the Balkans gateway. 

One of the most emblematic examples is the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015, which resulted in 130 dead and another 413 badly injured. The perpetrators were armed with Balkan-made rifles; an M70, which was standard issue in the People’s Army of former Yugoslavia; and a Chinese Model 56 take on the AK47 Kalashnikov, likely produced in Albania.

The absence of EU involvement in the Balkans is one of the factors that made this possible, the report claims. By investing in the arms industries of these small, newly independent countries, Saudi Arabia, China, Russia and the UAE have bought political and economic influence to use as they please, it states. 

What can the EU do?

According to TISCT director Thomas Charles, a few things can be done to remedy the situation. These include end-use monitoring and verification, better information exchange, blacklisting and supporting the media to hold the secretive arms trade in check.

He says: “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.”

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