Decoding Albanian Organized Crime: Culture, Politics, and Globalization

Decoding Albanian Organized Crime: Culture, Politics, and Globalization

Author: Jana Arsovska
Publisher: Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2015. 312p.
Reviewer: Dwight C. Smith, Jr. | July 2015

What do you do when you know your own country from the professional perspective of a sociologist/ethnographer as well as a native insider, and you read stories about your people written by insensitive observers who don’t know (as you do) what’s going on and who rely on myth-based stereotypes to explain your world to you? The best answer: Write Decoding Albanian Organized Crime to set them straight.

As a native Macedonian and herself a victim – as vividly described in her Preface – of extortion by Albanian organized criminals, Jana Arsovska is in a unique position to write this book from the inside. As an experienced ethnographer she is also well equipped to address her subject professionally and dispassionately.

The opening paragraph of the author’s note sets the stage. “While some people conceive of things as either black or white, I believe that we live in a gray zone.” The gray zone is defined anthropologically as liminality, “a state of ambiguity or disorientation that (may occur) during periods of rapid political and sociocultural change…. The gray zone and the liminal stage have the power to change people’s lives.” She then adds a spoiler alert. Because she will be trying to validate numerous “truths” about Albanian organized crime (and Albanian criminality in general), readers from particular points of view may not be happy. “That’s not my truth,” they may conclude. Given her plan of presenting multiple realities, Dr. Arsovska asks the reader to keep an open mind as she triangulates perspectives “from state agencies to victims, offenders to ordinary people” in order to arrive at her own interpretation.

That may be a tall order for some. I think she is correct in her approach, particularly as she adds a valuable anthropological perspective to organized crime research. But I can understand from my own writing experience how difficult it can be, especially for law enforcement personnel and journalists who have internalized the “alien conspiracy” perspective, to maintain an open mind. I will return to that thought later.

(Let me note here that readers unfamiliar with the Balkans are advised to have maps available showing geography and political boundaries as they existed prior to the fall of Yugoslavian and Albanian communism, and as they exist today. The absence of such resources is a major deficiency in the book that I attribute to an editorial lapse, not of the author’s making.)

Arsovska begins by describing an external perception, based on publicly-accepted imagery (with some official support) of an Albania mafia, comparable to that in Sicily. That imagery, “a family-based bureaucracy imported from mysterious foreign regions,” is rooted in a combination of fact, interpretation and fiction that flowered in the United States in the late 1960’s (think of mob functionary Joe Valachi, sociologist Donald Cressey, and Godfather author Mario Puzo) about how organized crime is structured and how it works. It underlies a series of myths about a culture of violence; about deliberate exportation of criminal elements controlled by superiors back home; and about the importance of blood ties as the cement in a rationally-designed hierarchy of organized crime. The myths are grounded particularly on an assumption that current behavior, particularly in rural parts of Albania, is governed by “Kanun” law — an oral tradition from the 15th century that was not printed until 1933.

The reality — as Arsovska describes through an array of case studies and extensive interviews with offenders, victims and police authorities, all reported against the background of a political-cultural history of the Balkans since the 1980s — is a different story. In the first place, a majority of Albanians may say that Kanun law still prevails, but when questioned, they are hard-put to describe it. At its core is besa, the concept of honor and sacred promise, to which the presumption of hierarchical organizations bound by secrecy and maintained by violence, can be traced. Kanun “traits” (if you can call them that) revolve around a belief in male superiority, reinforced by a love of weapons as signs of power and by a strong sense of honor, to be protected forcefully, especially if “virility” is questioned; a reliance on vengeance as the way to protect honor; a residual, but declining, deference to male superiors; and a broad sense of female subordination. Although Dr. Arsovska does not make a point of it, on reflection it sounds to me more like the classic foundation of current gender controversies than the basis of criminal behavior.

But more importantly, she points out that the top-down imposition of Western value systems on a bottoms-up clan- and family-based society generated social confusion, political instability and a breakdown of norms. There were localized, stationary groups that had grown up under a Communist regime and were able to take advantage of weakened social and state institutions. For others, however, the demoralizing effects of poverty and a severe case of liminality led to waves of emigration in search of a new life. Many succeeded legally in that transition, but others turned to a criminal life influenced by the power of a pop culture dream of instant gratification, not by directions from criminal powers back home. Their successes, temporary as some of them may have been, can be attributed in part to the self-fulfilling prophecy concept that “an individual’s sense of self grows out of society’s interpersonal interactions and the perceptions of others.” A public expectation of violent behavior is a reputation to be encouraged by the potential offender; it makes life easier for him. The myth of an alien conspiracy deliberately infiltrating and undermining another culture passes neither the fact nor the common sense test.

By focusing attention on the socio-cultural history of the Balkans and the realities of life under years of uncertainty and risk, Arsovska cuts through the myths and arrives at some conclusions that transcend Albania. “(O)rganized crime should not be perceived as a sinister entity threatening the civil world but rather as a social problem — an outcome of various sociocultural, political and economic developments…. Practice shows that organized crime, leading to the growth of the ’grey economy’ often has served the interests of people living in poor countries, enabling them to make profits and survive…. [Policy makers should] take into equal consideration culturally enriched and socially embedded factors that may have an impact on various illicit markets …avoid sensational reporting that externalizes local problems …study more carefully the actual social harm caused … [and] focus on the demand side of organized crime.” These final suggestions may be particularly difficult for conspiracy adherents to swallow, but from my perspective they make a great deal of sense.

In sum, Jana Arsovska has written a well-documented and important rejoinder to the popular alien conspiracy approach to organized crime. Yet even as I began to read it, I was struck by the fact that another book kept appearing between the lines, one that could be even more important. If she had not started with a desire to refute common mythology about crime in its own terms, her data array could be used to describe a universal market problem — what happens when social controls break down?

Let me explain. Any conspiracy theory generates a narrative to explain why things happened to produce results that the theory predicts. The narrative connects certain data points, dots on the total data landscape. “Connecting the dots” into a plausible explanation is crucial to the theory. The points selected “prove” it; other points that might contest the theory, or even lead to a more compelling story, are ignored.

By focusing on refuting the conspiracy dots in her data array, Dr. Arsovska effectively proves that the alien conspiracy theory did not apply. The data array hints at an alternative narrative, but it was not developed; the focus was more on disproving one narrative than on pursuing the other. That is unfortunate.

Imagine this alternative. Forget the popular mythology about criminality and look instead for data points that describe business across the entire sociocultural spectrum of behavior. There are plenty of them in this book. Using them, consider the market as a whole and ask: What happens when social controls break down and “legitimacy” disappears? Why, and how, do some entrepreneurs respond as paragons of virtue while some respond as pariahs, hovering around a previously-understood moral edge, and others become pirates, intent on their own gratification — or even jihadists who end up rejecting a culture that never helped them get ahead? This narrative might explain a great deal about the Balkans that the conventional organized crime narrative is unable to apprehend. More importantly, it might also be a template by which to examine other socio-cultural settings. From this approach, what might we learn about Tunisia after December 2010, when that “Arab Spring” began? Or what about later events in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Iraq or Syria? Would it also apply to those generations-old refugee settlements that have emerged around the world?

Don’t get me wrong. Decoding Albanian Organized Crime is a fine book — well organized, well researched, well presented, and a positive contribution to the field. I admire the author’s comprehension and skill. But without conspiracy theory as a data boundary, she could have an even more interesting analysis.

Dwight Smith is currently retired and lives in Slingerlands, New York. He is the author of The Mafia Mystique (1975) and numerous articles dealing with the relative utility of “organized crime” and “illicit enterprise” as conceptual frameworks. In 2014 he received the Distinguished Scholar Award from the International Association for the Study of Organized Crime.

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