3.1 Historical, Cultural, and Legal Context

This section is largely based on Sundhaussen’s analysis of “The Balkan Peninsula: A Historical Region Sui Generis .” Since he is not only one of the ultimate authorities on the topic, but his analysis has also been tailor-fit to the needs of conducting criminological research into the region in question, further referencing proves redundant. Instead, the interested reader is invited to consult the analysis in question, as well as the references therein (Sundhaussen, 2014).

When looking at the Balkans from a criminological perspective, one needs to understand certain basics of its historical, cultural, and legal legacy, as well as its current criminal justice context. Moreover, with regard to homicide research, it is essential to recognize common Balkan images and stereotypes that frequently portray the region as wild and violence prone, largely due to the rather recent post-Yugoslavian wars of 1991–1999. Obviously, the following discourse will need to be limited to selected key aspects deemed most relevant for providing context to the BHS. Therefore, we will have a brief look at violent images and stereotypes of the Balkans, followed by an overview of common traits that make the Balkans a historical space of its own kind, before discussing major religious, legal, cultural and criminal justice features that characterize the region as a distinctive criminological space.

3.1.1 Violent Balkan Images and Stereotypes

Much could be said about Balkan images, identities, and stereotypes,Footnote 1 but in an attempt to boil it all down to one vivid impression (Fig. 3.1), an example should provide for some remedy:

Time for a slivovitz I was sitting over dinner with three women about ten kilometers east of Belgrade: my Serbian girlfriend, her sister and her sister’s daughter. The men of the family – two brothers, two cousins – were in the city, and all of them were armed because one of the brothers had almost been attacked by an enemy family. Luckily the police turned up in time. This had occurred in the afternoon, and it was now evening. My girlfriend’s sister explained how it all started. A couple of years ago, drinking at his local, her husband’s brother offered to buy a drink for a man who didn’t like him. When the man scornfully declined, her brother in law pulled a gun and shot him in the leg, whereupon he went to prison for two years. Two weeks ago, he was released, and this afternoon, promptly ran into the man he had shot, surrounded by a group of friends. The house we were in stood all by itself, surrounded by snow. It snowed here day and night. The thought of what might happen next flashed through my mind. Instead of the men returning home, would their enemies come for the women? What would I do then? I had not spoken aloud, but the women read my thoughts. “I think Helge needs a slivovitz,” my girlfriend’s sister said. Then she thought I might need a second one. I helped myself to a third, and by the seventh glass, I was on my feet declaring that they would be fine because I would protect them. I was itching for a fight with a couple of Serbs. That’s when my girlfriend’s sister said: I think Helge’s had enough now. Nothing happened, of course. Nobody met anybody in town, and the men all came home in one piece. I’m only telling this story to explain what slivovitz does to you.” (cit. Timmerberg, 2016)

Fig. 3.1
figure 1

Time for a slivovitz (Möller-Kaya, 2016)

The cited text is a feuilleton published together with the illustration rather recently in one of Lufthansa’s magazines that is distributed globally on all its flights. It portraits an image, actually a violent stereotype, of the Balkans, as a region inhabited by “clan people,” prone to wild, violent, and revengeful behavior, all together embedded in a culture of drinking slivovitzFootnote 2, while running around with guns, and shooting at each other for no good reason. One could be puzzled, amused, or perhaps even annoyed by this well-known pejorative image of the “wild” Balkans,Footnote 3 but – although not crucial for initiating the BHS – the feuilleton nicely serves as a) an example par excellence for popular perception and presentation of (violence in) the Balkans and b) a constant reminder of the kind of data, analyses, and findings required for (dis)proving such stereotypes. Because in the end, in reality, as well as in the cited feuilleton, the actual occurrence of (lethal) violence in the Balkans might very well differ from our images, stereotypes, and expectations. Just as in the short story, our expectations of a “wild and violent” Balkan need not be met in reality, even though they might very well be based on solid initial information, like the bar violence in the story, or the higher homicide rates, when it comes to criminological research.

Reflecting on the Balkans as a region of violence, Sundhaussen concludes that there is no empirical proof for a disposition to violence specific to the Balkans, just as there is no proof for some sort of “atavistic” hate between its different ethnic population groups. The differences are that in some societies, the rules for restraining violence, as well as the control mechanisms enforcing them, are simply less deeply rooted than in other societies (p. 20). This seems to be the case in the Balkans and clearly a long-term consequence of the region’s historical, legal, and cultural legacy, rather than its inhabitants’ collective “atavistic” or violence prone traits (p. 20).

3.1.2 The Balkans as a Historical Space Sui Generis

The Balkans, according to Sundhaussen , constitute a unique historical and cultural region of Europe or a sub-region of Southeast Europe, as they exhibit a cluster of characteristics that exist nowhere else in that particular concentration and combination (p. 9). The region’s history from the end of the sixth century onward (great migration of the Slavs) can be divided into three main periods: 1. the period of the Byzantine Empire and the medieval Balkan states whose culture and civilization were shaped by the “Byzantine model”; 2. the 400–500-year period of direct or indirect Ottoman rule; 3. the period of modern state and nation building since the beginning of the nineteenth century to the present (p. 9). Obviously, in terms of structurally formative and long-term impact, the Byzantine legacy (including the medieval Balkan legacy) and the Ottoman legacy emerge as crucial regional traits.Footnote 4 While the North became predominantly Catholic, the South was predominantly influenced by the Orthodox Church and, in parts, has been reshaped by Islam (p. 7).

The Balkans are thus a textbook example of a region of migration and displacement – the conglomeration created by migrations within an area that is smaller than France proved to be a hornets’ nest with regard to modern state and nation building (p. 16). Between 1875 and 1999, the Balkan region was as a whole or partly involved in a total of 12 wars, in which, besides the regular military, paramilitary units played a significant role (p. 18). These paramilitary units were associated with the tradition of “Hajduks” and “Klephts,” the “outlaws” during the Ottoman period. While Balkan narratives honor them as “heroes,” “warriors against feudal injustice,” or “champions of national liberation,” Ottoman sources denote them simply as “robbers.” Undisputedly, “banditry” was a regional mass phenomenon from the seventeenth century onward, and in many respects, one could argue that it has remained one to this day,Footnote 5 entailing an enormous potential for insecurity and dissatisfaction (p. 18).

There is obvious continuity of this “banditry” as a mass phenomenon and historical legacy of the Ottoman Empire. But looking at its causes, rather than the phenomenon itself, according to Sundhaussen, the continuity consists of the fact that the Balkan states and their neighbors have not (yet) come to terms with their own history, whereas established Balkan “values” still remain unchallenged (p. 19). Since such setting impacts the societies of the whole region, not only the Balkans, but likewise Southeast Europe, from a criminological standpoint, it is clearly justified to speak of a criminological space sui generis. Its particularities shape as much the region’s criminal landscape, as they mold its criminal justice system, and more generally speaking public administration, as well as private business and the “way we get things done,” here, in our part of Europe.

3.1.3 The Balkans as a Legal and Cultural Region

With respect to the legal cultures, following Sundhaussen’s findings, pre-modern Southeast Europe can be roughly divided into a Western Roman (Northern) and an Eastern Roman subarea, whereby the split of Christianity was pivotal for this division (p. 10). Until well into the nineteenth century, there existed an almost unmanageable plethora of legal systems that had either loose or no relationships with each other at all, with varying jurisdictional purviews, or that were interchanged repeatedly over the course of centuries (p. 10). Since they were often unsystematic, many of these legal systems in fact cannot be characterized as legal systems at all (p. 10). The unification and “Europeanization” of law in the Balkan states and the Romanian principalities developed in the course of the nineteenth century and have lasted to the present (p. 14). This process encountered major resistance by large parts of the population and representatives of a historic legal doctrine, who rejected the Roman legal system as “alien” and “artificial” (p. 14). The popular trust in laws and jurisprudence was correspondingly so minimal that many resorted to the protection of patronage networks, which in turn further eroded the already fragile legal quasi-system (p. 14).

Now, this widespread reliance on patronage networks, rather than state authorities and institutions, is not only deeply rooted in the historical, legal, and cultural tradition of the Balkans, but it is also largely present in the Balkans, as well as Southeast Europe, even nowadays. Neither the collapse of the socialist regimes in 1989 nor the southeastern enlargement process of the European Union, accompanied by the transposition of its acquis communautaire throughout the region, has managed to significantly impact this patronage legacy. Throughout Southeast Europe, especially the Balkans, personal and family or clan-like patronage networks in fact bundle up into a loosely interconnected web of relationships (referred to as connections) which almost completely mimic formal state structures and functions.

In light of the briefly sketched legal, cultural, and historical legacy of the region, it should therefore come as no surprise that corruption, nepotism, and clientelism are present on a pandemic scale and generally considered good custom, rather than deviating from the norm. In the context of the BHS, it will be particularly interesting to see whether such broad reliance on patronage networks somehow impacts the occurrence or handling of (lethal) violence. Namely, formal state structures and functions in essence provide for the non-violent resolution of interpersonal conflicts and offer legit access to countless services. Now, if instead of relying on formal state structures and services, major parts of the population resort to patronage networks for settling their affairs and informal mechanisms of conflict resolution, one might immediately jump to the conclusion that this could perhaps explain the Balkan-violence-paradox (Chap. 1). Whether this actually might be the case or not will be further discussed based on the first findings of the BHS (Chap. 6).

3.2 Criminological Research Setting

After having roughly sketched the region’s historical, legal, and cultural legacy with regard to those general features deemed most relevant for understanding crime and (lethal) violence in its overall social context (Sect. 3.1), this section provides insight into more specific characteristics that describe and explain the criminological research setting the BHS has been conducted in. Whereas the general features were intended to portray the regional context necessary for understanding and explaining the BHS findings, the more specific features presented here are intended to illuminate the “who” and the “how” of the BHS as a practical challenge. The “who” deals with the current state of art in criminology in Southeast Europe and discusses essentials about what is currently going on in criminological research. The “how” deals with both the “how” of research funding and implementation and the “how” of gaining access to criminologically relevant data and the criminal justice system. In essence, this section brings more color to the presentation of the BHS research design and its operationalization (Chap. 4). It transparently depicts all those challenges and benefits of conducting research that commonly remain well hidden in academic publications, although they are crucial for the critical assessment of any study and the value of its findings.

3.2.1 Criminology in Southeastern Europe

Looking at the regional criminological setting, the first questions that emerge are “who is doing criminology?” and “what kind of research can be found?” Now, considering that criminology as a discipline is rather young, this question clearly deals more with the present time and less with the past. Nevertheless, one needs to stress that the very beginnings of criminology throughout the region had been interrupted by the post-Yugoslavian wars of 1991–1999. But even prior to that criminological research was significantly influenced by a socialist take on crime as a “Western” or “capitalist” sickness, against which the “brotherhood and unity” of the region was proclaimed to be immune. The few pockets of criminological research throughout the region that nevertheless existed could be found in Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, and Macedonia. In the process of the violent dissolution of Yugoslavia, most of the existing criminological relations between these few actors were interrupted, and until rather recently one could not speak of an actual regional criminological community.

Today in the 2020s, criminology in Southeastern Europe has been revitalized and has by far outgrown its initial few research locations (Meško, 2018). This is in part a consequence of a global rise in criminology’s attractiveness, and it is also to be attributed to several visionary criminological key figures, first and foremost Hans-Jörg Albrecht, Uglješa Zvekić, and Gorazd Meško, who raised a new generation of criminologists and have been vigorously supporting their work throughout the region. In sharp contrast to the situation only a decade ago, today there is a highly productive and stable criminological community in Southeastern Europe, with at least one engaged criminologist in each of the region’s states. Together they form the Balkan Criminology Network and have successfully revived and upgraded criminological research throughout the region (Meško, 2018). An interesting feature of these new Balkan criminologists is that, with a few exceptions, most of them have not undergone formal training/education in criminology, but instead have a background in (criminal) law, criminalistics, security studies, (social) pedagogy, sociology, psychology, social work, or former “defectology” (nowadays educational rehabilitation or special pedagogy). In many instances, they acquired criminological knowledge and skills through learning by doing, in the meaning that they simply started participating in regional and/or international criminological research projectsFootnote 6 and in due process picked up the necessary knowledge and skills. Now, this is rather important to note, since such picking up of criminological craftmanship along the way of doing research bares the risk of being inferior to formal and structured criminological training/education, while it may also impact the likeness of mistakes and the capacity to handle all the challenges inherent to empirical research.

To sum up, the current criminological research community in the Balkans and relevant neighboring states can best be described as a small (with few exceptions in Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina) but yet highly productive network of a new generation of young researchers, who got “criminologized” along the way of conducting research, who are less concerned with the region’s past than with its present and future, who operate with scarce if any institutional support in terms of funding, administration, staffing, logistics, or research tools, and who have in less than a decade become extremely engaged in European and global criminology. Due to the relatively small size of the criminological community, that only exceptionally counts more than two or three “criminologists” per country, many criminological topics have not been addressed (yet).Footnote 7 Nevertheless, as a fist major breakthrough, the region has managed to comprehensively “map” its criminological, victimological, and penological landscape and thereby strongly positioned itself within the European and global criminological community.Footnote 8 Before discussing common regional challenges that determine the research setting, it can be concluded that criminology in Southeastern Europe, especially the Balkans, despite numerous impressive achievements in the past decade, is still largely lacking behind criminology as practiced in the rest of Europe, as is well reflected by the regional lack of resources, knowhow, empirical research, higher education programs, institutions, and domestic as well as international publications.

3.2.2 The “Balkan Way” of Funding Research

Empirical research is usually rather costly in terms of resources. So, naturally when analyzing any given research setting, one should know some basic facts and figures about R&D funds and how these are made available to the research community. Looking at Southeastern Europe, the gross domestic expenditure on R&D in 2017 as share of the GDP was highest in Slovenia (slightly less than 2%), Hungary (slightly less than 1.5%), and Greece (slightly more than 1%), followed by Turkey, Serbia, Croatia, and Bulgaria (not even 1%), and Romania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina (less than 0.5%) (Eurostat, 2019). This is well below the European average of 2% and a major indication of what the regional research setting in terms of funds and resources might look like.

Clearly, research funds are scarce, but this alone does not make the region an isolated case in its European context. In my observation, it is the clustering of further characteristics – like poor salaries of researchers and professors, limited or no access to publications, software (e.g., SPSS), research staff and equipment, with no or poor travel budgets for attending conferences – that sets the region apart from the rest of Europe. There is also an evident lack of privately funded research opportunities (e.g., national foundations), little if any support or incentives for publishing in leading international journals or managing projects, and lack of institutional capacity to apply for or manage domestic/European/international research projects. Finally, throughout the region, I notice an academic mentality that still largely thinks about research funding in terms of socialist and communist dimensions, meaning that everyone should by default get some basic funds, regardless of any kind of competitive criteria. Now, to this last point on mentality, one needs to add that this has been slowly changing. However, since public research funds are so sparse, whereas key gatekeepers commonly still belong to the old guard, a recognizable “Balkan way” of funding research throughout Southeastern Europe has developed. In my experience this, “Balkan way” heavily relies on patronage networks and may well be depicted as a special type of (criminal) tycoonization of public research funds.Footnote 9

Bureaucracy has meanwhile inflated academia worldwide, including research and its funding (Martin, 2016; Nehring, 2016; Glaser, 2015). This issue inevitably touches upon the ongoing discussion on academic capitalism globally (Münch, 2016; Slaughter & Rhoades, 2004), but even more in transitional societies, like those found in the Balkans. Here, in the Balkans, with an established legacy of patronage networks, where corruption meets criminal state capture and dictates daily public and private business, one must seriously doubt that the sector of public research funding might somehow miraculously prove to be immune to its (criminal) tycoonization. Such immunity appears to be as likely as bureaucrats’ or academics’ overall immunity to deviant behavior, misconduct, corruption, or, for that matter, any kind of criminal behavior at all. Reliance on personal and family or clan-like patronage networks is a common feature throughout academia as it is in any other professional sector in Southeastern Europe (Getoš Kalac, 2021). But due to the fact that the overall funds these networks accumulate are extremely modest compared to other sectors of public expenditure, the public and scientific interest in the subject matter is accordingly low or nonexistent.Footnote 10 As discussed in the following paragraphs, the “Balkan way” in this context basically means that overly bureaucracy (in academia as well as in any other public sectors) is regularly being used (systematically) to limit access to funds and resources, which can also be seen as a regional legacy, whereas it is commonly the personal or academic and family or clan-like patronage networks that actually decide over (non)funding and resources, thereby (in)directly also determining research priorities and topics.

3.2.3 Criminal Justice Systems of the Balkans

As explained earlier in the context of the region’s legal history and its legacy (Sect. 3.1), many of the Balkans’ legal systems are in fact no systems at all. The current legal transposition of the European Union’s acquis communautaire throughout Southeastern Europe in many ways resembles the legal “Europeanization” and unification process that took off back in the nineteenth century. The region’s patronage legacy and culture of working around the official system, rather than through the system, although clearly undermining the rule of law principle and breeding corruption on a pandemic scale, should not simply be dismissed as negative phenomena. They are a given fact and yet another specificum of the region. Instead of providing for judgmental outrage and listing the countless harmful impacts of this regional condition, my following observations rather focus on explaining how the system actually works. The purpose is to shed some light on the “how” of the BHS not only in terms of data access and research operationalization but also in terms of contextualization of its findings.

In sharp contrast to most of criminal justice systems in the rest of Europe, those in Southeastern Europe, particularly in the Balkans, operate quite informally. While writing a research data access request in Germany or Sweden (probably implying the usage of a purposively designed online form) would be the first step in accessing criminal justice data, in Southeastern Europe, this would in fact commonly be the last step to take. First and foremost, one uses his/her patronage network, be it a personal, family, or clan-like one, in order to identify the relevant gatekeeper whose blessing or support would be needed to gain access. Then, again using one’s patronage network, the gatekeeper is approached informally and kindly asked for or bluntly pressured into granting access. This step is repeated until mastered or alternative gatekeepers can be identified. After access has informally be granted, usually as a last step, a research data access request is handed in. Now, obviously if one’s patronage network includes such gatekeepers, all the previous steps are skipped and access is achieved instantly, most likely even without retroactively handing in a pro forma written request.

Although this “working around the official system” might seem highly problematic from the aspect of equality, in many ways the system operates quite similar to the “working through the official system” in other parts of Europe (e.g., Germany or Sweden). The only striking difference is that in Southeastern Europe (data access) success commonly depends on personal, family, and clan-like relations, whereas in most of the rest of Europe, the outcome is usually determined by professional or institutional influence and reputation, which is grounded in proven competences and achievements. In light of this, one could argue that both systems are equally unfair, with the only difference being that this unfairness in the Balkans is a result of personal chance or luck, whereas in most of the rest of Europe, it is a result of professional work and institutional achievements. The Balkan “system” as simplistically sketched above applies throughout the (criminal) justice system as well, ranging from staffing and advancement, all the way to launching criminal investigations (or rather not). Now, the unsuccessfulness of rooting out such practices in Southeastern Europe cannot simply be explained by the legacy of patronage networks. It is more likely explainable by a synergy of such a legacy, the patronage networks acting as a perpetuum mobile and the necessity of doing favors in order to be able to call in favors, which are an indispensable resource to work the system. So, as a conclusion, perhaps even a lesson and a takeaway, any researcher interested in conducting criminological adventures throughout the Balkans should be prepared to invest time and energy into personal networks, equip himself/herself with ample patients, and beware that it is customary to (first) get things done informally – commonly over food and drinks.