It’s been almost 20 years since the Yugoslav Wars ended, and the Balkans are now at relative peace. For Western Europe, however, the shadow of Yugoslavia’s wars continues to haunt with a serious security threat.
In its prime, the Yugoslav People’s Army (YNA) had around 12 million men available for military service. The state began churning out millions of weapons to arm these soldiers at a moment’s notice if territorial defense was needed.
As Yugoslavia began to fragment in 1991, the YNA did the same. However, the largest weapons stockpiles and military bases were in the hands of the Serbs, making them the dominant force in the region. They subsequently waged war on countries like Croatia and Bosnia, who had recently declared independence.
Weapons In Yugoslavia
In July 1991, the UN placed an arms embargo on former Yugoslavia to stop the carnage. All this did, however, was force embattled Croatia and Bosnia into the hands of a shadowy network of arms traders tied to organized crime. These networks were keen on bringing deadly arms shipments to the former Yugoslavia.
In the space of a few months, the region was awash with illegally imported weapons as well as those from the YNA’s vast stockpiles. The weapons used in the wars were not handed over at the promise of peace. As a result, the estimated number of illegal arms across former Yugoslavia is alarming.
The Interior Ministry of Serbia estimated that there are up to 900,000 small arms units in the country. In neighboring Bosnia, that number is around 750,000, according to SEESAC. Despite only having a population of 2 million, the young state of Kosovo has an estimated 450,000 small arms in circulation, according to the UN.
Such statistics reinforced by videos such as this one of a civilian picnic in Kosovo.
Moving Weapons West
As time moves on, many people lose their fondness for weapons, particularly in economic uncertainty. Serbia, Bosnia, and Kosovo all rank in the top 10 poorest countries in Europe. When well-funded terrorists, criminals, or middlemen appear looking to buy military-grade arms, the right price is around 300 to 500 euro ($350 to 580).
The weapons are then sent West along the Balkans’ many highways. Only a small portion of the hundreds of public buses heading for Western Europe every day are checked, not to mention the vans and private automobiles.
Local border police and customs are fighting a losing battle and often bribed. Once the weapon is inside the EU’s 26-country Schengen zone, smugglers take advantage of the practically frictionless travel across borders.
Zastava M70 Assault Rifle
The most prolific weapon to surface from the former Yugoslavia is the Zastava M70 assault rifle, the design of which is based on the Soviet AKM rifle. The 7.62mm rifle was the standard issue weapon in the Yugoslav People’s Army in 1970, and it’s estimated that over 4 million were produced.
Corruption was common in the gun factories to such an extent that common joke amongst factory workers was ‘’when you manufacture weapons, one is for the government and one is for you.”
For a terrifying case study of what these weapons can do when they fall into the wrong hands and hit Western Europe, we only have to look at the wave of catastrophic terror attacks that swept across France in 2015.
Terror Attacks In Europe
During the violent rampage at the offices of Charlie Hebdo carried out by two al-Qaeda members in January 2015, both men were armed with Zastava M70 rifles. Twelve people were ruthlessly executed during the attack.
The rounds they were killed with? All purchased by the terror cell or middlemen in Bosnia. The 7.62mm rounds were originally manufactured in 1986 by Igman Company, a state-owned factory in the town of Konjic south of the capital Sarajevo.
In November of the same year, an ISIS cell attacked a concert at the Bataclan Theatre as part of a larger coordinated terror attack across Paris. The terrorists entered the building and opened fire with automatic weapons. In the aftermath, 90 innocent people lay dead.
Alongside the three dead attackers was a Zastava M70 assault rifle from the former Yugoslavia, an AK47 from neighboring Bulgaria, and a Chinese made AK47 that likely originated from Communist Albania before falling onto the black market during the Albanian Civil War and subsequent war in Kosovo.
In contrast to the attacks on 9/11, modern terrorists have figured out how to unleash maximum carnage and terror with minimal equipment. Despite being armed with suicide vests, most victims fell to the terrorists’ smuggled assault rifles. Three weapons were all that was required to cause absolute havoc.
Black Market for Weapons
The task of efficiently tracking and stopping the flow of illicit arms from the former Yugoslavia is almost impossible. The black market for weapons operates on a system of very basic supply and demand. It’s a case of “micro-trafficking,” where just a few weapons are smuggled in, making it much more difficult to track.
In contrast to drugs, which are consumed in large quantities and require regular resupplying, guns last for years, especially hardy Eastern European models like the Zastava M70. Once inside Western Europe, they pose a lethal and persistent threat.
A female Bosnian fighter, I assume at the start of the war. With what looks like a Bulgarian AK. Serbs came to the war all carrying Zastava M70 courtesy of the Yugoslav Army. Bosnian government had to make do with what they could get their hands on. pic.twitter.com/DoldKk9ile
— Mirza (@mirza8211) July 28, 2020
The horror of the attacks in Paris created a spotlight on the French connection to the former Yugoslavia’s military-grade arms. It subsequently pushed the EU to make more aggressive laws to weaken the flow of arms from the Yugoslav Wars era. This included marking weapons to make them easier to trace as well as deeper integration between the EU and Interpol’s centralized tracking system, which records all firearms lost, stolen, or trafficked.
Serbia and France, the two key characters of the “French Connection” between weapons from the Yugoslav Wars and the attacks in Paris, signed a deal to form a joint task force to investigate illicit arms smuggling across Europe.
The agreement materialized in an enormous two-day Interpol-led operation, which saw 5,000 police officers mobilize across all of the former Yugoslavian republics. However, the operation only resulted in 22 arrests and the seizure of 40 firearms and six kilograms of explosives.
Only a few million more to catch.
Joel Fraser is a security analyst and writer for Reaper Feed. This article was written with assistance from Fraser’s colleagues at Reaper Feed.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Defense Post.
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