The safe and law-abiding Balkans

Via the invaluable Osservatorio sui Balcani comes a fascinating report on crime in the Balkans. It’s by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (ONODC), and it offers some surprising conclusions:

[The] Balkans is safer than thought…

With detailed, comprehensive statistics, the report concludes that the Balkans, contrary to widespread opinion, does not have a problem with conventional crime: “South East Europe does not, in fact, suffer from high rates of crime, at least in terms of the range of offences commonly referred to as ‘conventional crime’: murder, rape, assault, robbery, burglary, theft and the like. In fact, most of the region is safer than West Europe in this respect.” The report notes, “This key fact is often omitted from discussions on crime in the region.”


I said it was surprising. But it’s not, really, to anyone who’s lived there. Most large cities in the Balkans feel pretty safe. I’ve wandered around late at night in Belgrade, Bucharest, Prishtina, Chisinau, Tirana and Zagreb, and I’ve never felt threatened. True, I’m a healthy-looking adult male… but when I say wandered, I mean long (>10 km) walks into random neighborhoods, often well past midnight. And I flet much safer wandering around late-night Belgrade or Tirana than I would have in London or Paris.

The safety of the Balkans is sort of a well-kept secret. Expats who go to live there figure it out pretty quickly — it’s one of several reasons that expats tend to keep coming back — but folks who’ve never visited often have very negative ideas. This is particularly true of the Albanian regions (I’ve had Serbian acquaintances literally gasp with horror when I told them I had strolled around Tirana in the middle of the night), but it applies to the whole region as well.

This isn’t to say there’s no crime in the region. There is. But there’s not as much as everyone thinks, and there’s often much less than in Western Europe:

After analysing the standard indicators of conventional crime, such as murders, theft (especially auto theft), the report unequivocally concludes that the region is safer overall than Western Europe, “In terms of the standardized murder rates… most countries of the region fall at or below the European average. Moldova and Albania are exceptions, but even these two countries are safer than most of Eastern Europe.” For example, the West European average of murders per 100,000 people (2004 data) stands at 2.5, Macedonia at 2.3, Croatia at 1.8, Romania at 2.5, Bulgaria at 4.1, Albania at 5.7, and Moldova at 8.0. Russia has the worst statistics with an average of 19.9 murders per 100,000 people…

In addition, the report notes the positive trend over the past decade of declining murder rates throughout the region, “combining the data from Moldova, Albania, Romania, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Serbia, the number of murders in the region essentially halved between 1998 and 2006.”

In other forms of conventional crime, the report finds Western Europe “to have over twice the burglary, over four times as much assault, and 15 times as much robbery as South East Europe.”

The report also claims that its findings are robust. That is, they’re not the product of underreporting of crimes, or of official adjustments to statistics. The Balkans really are safer.

Why? Well, partly it’s demographics: the region (except for Kosovo) has an oldish population. Birthrates fell through the 1980s, meaning there are relatively few young people in the peak crime-committing years.

Of course, that’s true of Russia too, and Russia has sky-high crime rates. One difference is that the region is a net exporter of young people, especially of young men — an awful lot of twentysomething Serbs and Romanians are washing cars in Munich or picking lettuce in Spain, instead of hanging around the streets of their home towns.

Another issue is that the region is still very rural compared to Western Europe (or Russia). This is changing, but slowly, and the region is unlikely to reach western levels of urbanization any time soon.

There are other reasons… but check out the report itself (.pdf) for the details. (The Executive Summary starts on page 7.)

— And organized crime? Yes, it’s an issue, and a big one. In fact, more than half of the report is spent discussing it. But that’s probably worth another post.

2 thoughts on “The safe and law-abiding Balkans

  1. One difference is that the region is a net exporter of young people, especially of young men — an awful lot of twentysomething Serbs and Romanians are washing cars in Munich or picking lettuce in Spain, instead of hanging around the streets of their home towns.

    Do these “exported” young men commit a disproportionate amount of crime in the countries where they’re now living?

  2. Pingback: polysemic · things that go bark in the night

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