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Irrationality, Liminality and the Demand for Illicit Firearms in the Balkans and the North Caucasus


Most conventional approaches to the study of arms trafficking are grounded on the assumption that people are rational and always seek the most cost-effective means to achieve a goal. This article discusses the illicit firearms markets in the Balkans and the North Caucasus—the regions in which trafficking of illicit firearms has been flourishing since the early 1990s. By studying the demand side of this illicit market, it provides some possible explanations as to why numerous arms reduction measures have had limited results. It argues that cultural attitudes, socio-political complexity and emotions could explain much of the “irrational” behavior of those demanding weapons in these regions. The article contributes to the scholarly debate on the applicability of the rational choice theory-inspired arms reduction policies in highly textured sociocultural contexts. It is an effort to construct multifaceted conceptualization of human choice that focuses not only on the functionality of firearms but also on their symbolic and situational meaning.

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  1. SALW are a subcategory of conventional weapons and range from pistols and rifles to mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and man-portable air defense systems, or MANPADS. A widely used UN definition of small arms includes revolvers and self-loading pistols, rifles and carbines, assault rifles, submachine guns, and light machine guns. Light weapons include heavy machine guns, hand-held underbarrel and mounted grenade launchers, portable antitank and antiaircraft guns, recoilless rifles, portable launchers of antitank and antiaircraft missile systems, and mortars of less than 100 mm caliber (Stohl and Hoogendoorn 2010). Firearms—rifles, shotguns, side arms, sub-machine guns, machine gun and heavy machine guns—are the most numerous, the only type of small arms for which registration data is widely available.

  2. Small arms are the weapons of choice around the globe because they are cheap, widely available, lethal, durable, simple to use, portable and concealable. The AK-47 family of assault rifles is currently produced in some 29 countries and cost as little as USD 200 new. Anecdotal data suggest that a used AK-47 could now be purchased for the price of a chicken in some African countries (Stohl and Hogendoorn 2010).

    Arms trafficking is an illegal act of supplying a party with weapons or ammunitions. Arms maybe smuggled domestically and enter illicit circulation through distribution, theft, leakage or divergence, pilferage and resale (UNODA 2007). Alternatively, firearms may be smuggled via the so-called “ant trade”—numerous shipments of small numbers of firearms transferred from abroad by a small unauthorized end user (Small Arms Survey 2013). Arms trafficking also occurs under supervision of corrupt officials, brokers or outsiders who simply seek profit. A state, or a major party, may deliberately organize firearms trafficking for a state’s own good in violation of arms embargos.

  3. There is likelihood that claims, expressly stated or implied in the article, with a reference to certain suspects’ involvement in a criminal act were later dismissed from charges. To overcome potential problems with regards to libel, no person mentioned in the context of alleged offence in this article should be considered guilty unless there is a formal guilty court verdict. Most criminal cases have been provided to illustrate the arguments of the theoretical framework based on a de facto presumption of guilt. These cases, however, are not always supported by a de jure sentence that is the only legal condition to validate the involvement of a suspect in offence.

  4. See for example, Hayward 2007; Kaufman 1998; Simpson 2000.

  5. The two cases have been selected for the analysis because they have the potential to show similarities and highlight common lessons for national and international post-conflict reconstruction efforts. Both republics have experienced protracted conflicts that have left a legacy of societal grievances characterized by a hemorrhage of political and military institutions, economic decay and open access to illicit firearms. Not only did the events take place in the same general time frame, but they both also involved ethnic minorities seeking a degree of autonomy or independence from relatively non-democratic and dictatorial regimes via violent ways. An arm trafficking has been an increasingly salient issue in both cases.

  6. The details of the case were provided by Austrian investigators working on this case.

  7. The post-World War II Yugoslav constitution established the Autonomous Province of Kosovo and Metohija within the Yugoslav constituent republic of Serbia

  8. The dates of the Second Chechen War include the following periods: the battle phase (1999–2000) and the insurgency phase (2000–2009).

  9. The Chechens were well-represented in the Soviet-era organized crime. Their early activities included extortion and robbery of small traders, racketeering of larger enterprises and profiting from the sales of goods and services in the black market (Shelley et al 2005: 68).

  10. Before the disintegration of the USSR in December 1991 and following the Declaration of Independence of Chechnya (President’s Degree as of 1 November 1991), the Chechen government declared on 26 November 1991 that all military equipment stationed in Chechnya belonged to the Chechen Republic and could not be removed. Bislan Gantamirov, for instance, the leader of the Grozny KGB raid, was never prosecuted for arms theft. On the contrary, he became the mayor of Grozny in 1991 and the Prime Minister of Chechnya in 1992.

  11. “Borz” is the Chechen word for “wolf”. This name is chosen because of the special position of a wolf on the coat of arms of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria.

  12. A series of defeats in winter-spring 1995 made Dudayev change the tactics. Whereas initially Dudayev preferred the combating strategy, in which federal forced were attacked at a short distance. At a later stage, Dudayev realized that his fighters would have an advantage if they would attack unexpectedly from the mountains. The shift in the strategy made AK-47 the weapon of choice. The Borz is a short-range gun.

  13. The kind of Islam indigenous to the North Caucasus is Sufism.

  14. Jamaat (also djamaat) is a term used to refer to a community united by a universal conviction that is often religious in nature. The term became widely used in Chechnya back in the 1990s following the formation of militarized groups under the leadership of Sheikh Fathi, an ethnic Chechen from Jordan. In recent years, jamaats acquired noticeable societal recognition and popularity as religion-based organizations in other republics of the North Caucasus. The term, however, may be used without the religious connotation in this context. In Dagestan, for example, the term is widely used in everyday life to refer to communities and kinship groups.

  15. The North Caucasus Federal District was established by the President degree on 19 January 2010 and includes the following administrative units: Republic of Dagestan, Republic of Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, Republic of North Ossetia-Alania, Stavropolskiy krai, and the Chechen Republic.

  16. Also historically, most Balkan countries have been under the occupation of the Ottoman Empire for five centuries and under a strict communist rule for about 45 years. Thus this conflict mentality and distrust in state institutions, in general, predates the post-communist regional wars.

  17. Interview conducted in Prishtina, July 2008.

  18. Proverbs also represent guns as a means of social and national identity: “The Albanian is not born of a womb, but of a [rifle’s] trigger” (from Albania) and “an Albanian loves his rifle as much as [he loves] his wife” (from Albania).


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Support for this project was provided by a PSC-CUNY Award, jointly funded by The Professional Staff Congress and The City University of New York.

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Correspondence to Jana Arsovska.

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Arsovska, J., Zabyelina, Y.G. Irrationality, Liminality and the Demand for Illicit Firearms in the Balkans and the North Caucasus. Eur J Crim Policy Res 20, 399–420 (2014).

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  • Balkans
  • Bounded rationality
  • Chechnya
  • Illicit firearms
  • Liminality
  • Rational choice theory
  • SALW