Balkan money-laundering is booming | The Economist

May 22, 2021

ÖOn May 12, prosecutors in northern Macedonia accused Nikola Gruevski, the country’s former prime minister, of money laundering. He is believed to have channeled cash donated to his party through Belize to illegally buy property and hide its property. He says the case is politically motivated. In Jahorina, a popular Bosnian ski resort, gangsters and the officials they corrupt have now invested in hotels. All types of corruption are widespread. An expatriate who half-built a block of flats near his home in Vlorë, southern Albania, grumbles that the building stalled because he refused to pay bribes to get the necessary permits.

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All over the Balkans, dirty money is laundering through real estate, the market is distorted and prices are rising – much to the ire of common house hunters. Sophisticated new towers are rising in Tirana, Pristina and Belgrade. Although the economy in the Balkans has been badly hit by Covid-19, property prices in parts of the region have defied gravity. In Tirana they have more than doubled since 2017. Across Albania, the value of real estate transactions increased by 6.7% in 2020.

The money laundering of drugs, which has been booming in recent years, particularly through cocaine trafficking, is one reason for rising prices, according to a new report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, an international network of crime specialists. Another reason is that crooked officials have to invest their money. All Balkan countries have solid money laundering laws, but enforcement is patchy.

In the last decade, criminal syndicates in the Balkans have outgrown their small home countries. They now earn a lot of their money abroad. Therefore, according to the report, a large part of their profits are also invested abroad. But they are still investing at home. Fatjona Mejdini, who helped research the report, says the Balkan governments are ambivalent about money laundering. They want to take action, but at the same time welcome the jobs and investments they can bring. The gangsters who make grueling money are conservative when it comes to investing it. They “have no imagination,” Ms. Mejdini says, which is why they prefer bricks and mortar to the many other types of shops that could wash their loot.

This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the heading “Hide”