A report launched today by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Against Organized Crime entitled Undercurrents: Blue crime on the Danube’ suggests that the Danube’s increasing economic significance is shadowed by the threat of illicit economies. 

Although there have only been a few major seizures of illicit goods along the river (such as the discovery of a tonne of cocaine in the Danube Delta in 2019 and the seizure of almost 3 million packages of untaxed cigarettes in Hungary in 2021), the report points to vulnerabilities including as a result of increased traffic along the river caused by Russia’s blockading of the port of Odesa, Ukraine. Between October 2021 and October 2023, there was a six-fold increase in trans-shipment through Ukraine’s Danube ports, particularly for key exports such as grain, oil and fertilizers. There has also been considerable investment in infrastructure in Danube ports in the past few years, particularly in Moldova, Romania and Ukraine. 

‘Experience shows that increases in licit traffic through seaports or inland waterways without corresponding improvements in law enforcement cooperation can increase the risk of illicit flows,’ warns one of the co-authors, Ruggero Scaturro. 

While the lower Danube is currently the most dynamic and vulnerable part of the river, there have been significant cases of fuel and cigarette smuggling in the middle part of the river (for example in Serbia and Bulgaria), and concerns about blind spots further upstream. ‘The part of the river that flows through the Schengen zone seems like the most quiet, but that could be a result of fewer controls,’ cautions Scaturro. He points out that both ends of the river are linked to major seaports that are gateways for smuggling, particularly drugs. 

The report underlines the need for greater intelligence sharing and law enforcement cooperation. ‘It is revealing that most major seizures – for example of drugs and cigarettes – have been by accident rather than as a result of targeted operations,’ said co-author, Walter Kemp.

At the same time, the report highlights the need to involve the private sector, port authorities, affected communities and regions, as well as civil society. Above all, it underlines the need for strong political engagement and leadership to generate the necessary attention and resources to foster greater cooperation and implement already agreed commitments to improve security along the Danube, for example in the EU Strategy for the Danube Region

The report concludes that a number of currently pressing factors should focus greater political attention on the strategic significance of the Danube: the war in Ukraine and its impact on the region; the renewed importance of the Danube for trans-shipment and related investments in infrastructure; discussions on lifting controls at internal land borders between Bulgaria and Romania and countries of the Schengen area; and the EU accession processes of Moldova, Ukraine and Serbia.

‘There is no point in heavily securitizing the Danube,’ noted Kemp, ‘but relatively small, practical steps and greater cooperation can enable law enforcement to get out in front of this issue rather than being forced to react to nasty surprises in the future.’ 

The report offers concrete recommendations for law enforcement to increase security and cooperation along the Danube, including the establishment of a Danube law enforcement network; enhanced trilateral police and customs cooperation between Romania, Moldova and Ukraine; more effective use of intelligence-led policing and back-tracking investigations; and the creation of a ‘suspicious vessels’ database.