In the Eye of the Storm: How Global Dynamics Shape the Post-War Recovery of Cities in the Balkans and Beyond

Multi-layered collage: A hand holding a smartphone in front of a television showing Haiti’s heavily damaged National Palace, January 12, 2010, after the magnitude 7.0 earthquake in Port-au- Prince, with people in front of a fence in focus of the smartphone’s camera; the ticker text below the TV image reads “Afghanistan: Deux soldats américains tués par une bombe artisanale” (Two US soldiers killed by homemade bomb). Artwork: Colnate Group, 2024 (cc by nc)
Artwork: Colnate Group, 2024 (cc by nc)

War and (organized) crime are capitalism with the gloves off – not an aberration from the normality of the dominant political-economic order. This was evident in the 1990s in the collapse of Yugoslavia. Today, we can see the devastating effects of such unvarnished capitalism in post-Yugoslavian countries like Serbia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, impelling us to recognize that these cases are harbingers and lessons for the capitalist apocalypse in cities collapsing due to the interrelated violence of climate crisis and war, as Vesna Bojičić-Dželilović argues in her contribution to the “Kin City” series.


The 1990s were the heyday of globalization driven by the neoliberal agenda of widening and deepening free markets. The promotion of free trade, free enterprise, and unlimited freedom of investing abroad, was central to the economic policy thinking in the “developed world” and its institutions. For countries transitioning from authoritarian rule, the process was accompanied by democratization through the establishment of multiparty political systems and rule-of-law institutions. It manifested itself in an increase in the number of civil/internal wars worldwide, which many observers attributed to the difficulties of regime change. As such, these wars were seen as a temporary diversion on the road to liberal market democracy.

However, this common labeling obscured the nature of the armed violence that unfolded on the periphery of global capitalism, as these conflicts were simultaneously regional and global, as Mary Kaldor noted in her book “New and Old Wars” (1998). The war economy that emerged was inherently transnational in terms of its actors, activities, and scope, as the fragmentation and diminished domestic economic base limited the ability to raise combat funds internally, as was common in classical interstate wars. Networks of networks, linking diverse actors (warriors; traders; businessmen; politicians; clerics; criminals; diaspora; various institutional actors) through a multiplicity of ties – regional and transnational – and held together by the involvement of local political structures, engaged in armed violence.

Progressive” and “regressive globalization” merge

In doing so, they established themselves as violent actors in their own right, endowed with resilience and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. From Latin America to sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Balkans, a common pattern could be observed of regional and global networks involved in illegal and criminal activities colluding with political and military actors in this new era of liberal capitalism. While the participation of members of organized crime in these networks was crucial for exploiting the opportunities of the global economy, their other characteristic – the pursuit of organized crime activities as a capital accumulation strategy – would prove much more detrimental to the post-war recovery and stabilization of war-affected countries. This was due to the direct involvement of state structures in these activities, which blurred the boundaries between public and private, and legal and illegal practices.

This made it impossible to eradicate organized crime as an activity, as manifested in the widespread informality that has become a hallmark of post-war reconstruction, peace, and state-building. It exists in the form of disregard for formal rules and their violation in everyday life and in the daily administration of the state. The former phenomenon has been amply documented in scholarship on the Western Balkans, most recently in writing on Serbia under Slobodan Milošević, where smuggling and criminality involving transnational networks were state-run operations. And the latter has been empirically detailed in the analysis of the postwar adaptation of Bosnian Croat wartime networks in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The point of this brief reflection is that wartime (criminal) transnational networks provided the infrastructure of “regressive globalization,” characterized by the fusion of crime, politics and organized violence. In contrast to the analysis that interpreted (“progressive”) globalization as a context for multiple transitions on the global capitalist periphery, and “regressive globalization” as a temporary side effect, the transnational networks perspective draws attention to their functioning within local polities, from within the war-affected states. The significance of this insight is that the agendas of “progressive” and “regressive globalization” merge through the agency of transnational networks, rendering the distinction between war and peace irrelevant – an idea that resonates with the “Kin City” project’s propositions that climate crisis and war in the global periphery are inseparable from the processes and dynamics in the “developed world.”

Processes and structures of economic criminalization

In the Balkans, the persistence of wartime actors, structures, and ideologies has been a major factor in preventing a decisive break with the experience of war and recovery from its destructive material, societal, and institutional effects, despite the fact that this southern flank of Europe is in a far better position to do so than other parts of the world. The same actors who waged the wars have come to command political authority and economic resources in their aftermath, so that structural violence has been integrated into the post-war political order. Political control, especially in the immediate aftermath of the wars, but also in some cases and to some extent to this day, especially in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Serbia, is maintained in part by a threat of violence based on maintaining links to wartime collocutors and sources in transnational networks and spaces. An important aspect of the adaptation of the war economy to peacetime conditions has been a shift in the nature of illegal and criminal activities, such as the repurposing of routes used to smuggle everyday goods into besieged cities to traffic in weapons, drugs, and human beings, so that the scale of criminal activities within the economic space has invariably expanded in the course of postwar transition and reconstruction in the Balkans.

This outcome is only one aspect of the process of economic criminalization, in which many legal businesses often resort to informal practices, especially in the form of undeclared work, tax evasion and other forms of rule evasion and avoidance, from which all these economies suffer in the permissive economic, institutional, and social conditions created in the context of post-war recovery guided by neoliberal economic precepts. The lack of decent work and inequality of access to jobs and other economic opportunities has been a permanent feature of the post-war Balkans and a strong incentive for relentless migration out of the region in search of better life prospects. The neoliberal economic reforms and, more broadly, the postwar reconstruction and peacebuilding interventions promoted by international donors and financial institutions have promoted formal institution-building while turning a blind eye to its dysfunction. If anything, such neo-functionalist approaches have contributed to the consolidation of regimes that operate through violent extraction and expulsions, and that lack the will and capacity to address the broken physical and social infrastructure that plagues the daily lives of many citizens across the post-war Balkans.

Expulsions, “urbicide,” and migrant labor

One way of describing the kind of rule that has emerged in the course of the latest wave of globalization by exploiting the illicit structures of opportunity through armed violence in the peripheries of the Global North is as representing alternative configurations of politics and power in the 21st century. Such an outcome flies in the face of the proponents of post-totalitarian, post-war transitions in the form of liberal market democracy, whose voices echoed loudly in the Western corridors of power in the last decades of the twentieth century. Whether we are talking about post-peace agreement Colombia, Afghanistan, the Western Balkans, or many other countries affected by armed violence, in each case informal and criminal connections and activities play a distinctive role in the functioning of the political and economic system. What they all have in common is widespread violence, expressed in different forms and spaces in urban contexts.

It is the city, according to Saskia Sasken and Mary Kaldor, that provides a “natural” setting for criminal, organized violence that erases the distinction between war and peace and between its protagonists. Cities were explicitly targeted during the recent Balkan wars, as theaters of the physical elimination of people through ethnic cleansing, the destruction of cultural and historical sites, and other forms of violence (including environmental violence) that together have given rise to a new term – “urbicide” – to convey the destruction of urbanity in all its dimensions. Even in those cities that have escaped direct armed violence, the succession of regional conflicts, fueled by the illegal and criminal agendas of their protagonists, has often created toxic local political economies as a major factor contributing to the erosion of the urban fabric. Recent shifts in global migratory flows, driven in large part (but not exclusively) by global warming and related environmental and economic violence, have exacerbated this dynamic, turning the Balkans into a major transit route for migrants trying to reach Western Europe.

The migrants often face racism and rarely stay in the region, which offers bleak economic prospects. But their presence has created new lucrative opportunities for organized crime networks and their protectors, who are often embedded in political and security structures. This serves to perpetuate the cycle of perpetual transition in which many post-war countries, including those in the Western Balkans, are trapped. At this historical juncture, when the world is undergoing profound power shifts and turbulence, this kind of transition generates chronic insecurity and vulnerability for various segments of the local population and keeps the prospect of renewed armed violence a real possibility.

Editor’s note: The article is a contribution to the “Kin City” series of the Berliner Gazette. More information:

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