United Nations report: Balkans the safest region in Europe

When I arrived in Montenegro three months ago, one of the things that struck me first was how safe things felt.

What was I expecting?

Well, not a lot of armed thugs or anything. But I’d traveled enough in the former communist corners of Europe — including past trips into the Balkans — to notice a slightly different atmosphere than you feel in more staid places like the Netherlands or Germany. There isn’t the sense of order you find in those places, and that absence piques your alertness. It’s not that you are in danger at all, but you are certainly a little more aware of your surroundings.

Before coming to Montenegro, I’d last been in the Balkans — specifically Croatia and Bosnia — four years before. These recent months of traveling in the region has had a decidedly different feel — Albania being a noteworthy exception.

Turns out that the United Nations is feeling pretty bullish on the Balkans as well.

The UN released a surprising report yesterday that called the Balkans perhaps Europe’s safest region, saying countries like Montenegro, Serbia and Bosnia boast lower numbers of murders, rapes and petty crime than western Europe.

“The Balkans is departing from an era when demagogues, secret police and thugs profited from sanctions-busting and the smuggling of people, arms, cigarettes and drugs,” the report said.

The report surveyed nine countries: Montenegro, Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Albania, Moldova, Bulgaria and Romania.

The report still notes the pervasiveness of corruption and organized crime activities, however.

Of course, a fair question to ask about this report in general is: Compared to what?

After all, the UN notes — in a major nod to the obvious, it seems to me — that regular crimes, including homicides and rapes, “across the region are by far lower than they used to be, particularly in the beginning of the 1990s.” Well duh. At the beginning of the 1990s, didn’t you have widespread instability and lawlessness in places like Romania, Bulgaria and Albania as they emerged out of communism? Didn’t you have a regional war that engulfed Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Montenegro in an orgy of killing and destruction that lasted nearly five years?

To compare crime rates in some of these countries now to a time when crime was the only thing that counted doesn’t seem to say much. It would have been more useful for the UN to note how things have changed in, say, the last five years.