(Adds EU commissioner, paragraphs 9-11)
BRUSSELS, May 29 (Reuters) - A decade after the wars that tore apart the former Yugoslavia, most of the Balkans is safer than western Europe, the United Nations said in a report on Thursday.
Levels of homicide, rape, assault, robbery and burglary were all lower in the region than elsewhere in Europe, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said, citing the benefits of the relative political and economic stability of recent years.
The one black spot remained organised crime and particularly the region’s role in heroin trafficking, it said, calling for more cross-border cooperation between national police forces.
"At present, the levels of crime against people and property are lower than elsewhere in Europe, and the number of murders is falling in every Balkan country," UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa said.
Costa said there was widespread collusion between business, politics and organised crime, but security sector reform and improved criminal justice made it riskier and less profitable.
"The stereotype of the Balkans as a gangsters’ paradise no longer applies — though serious problems remain," he said in the report, presented at a news conference in Brussels.
The report, based on U.N. and national police data, covered nine countries: Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia and new EU members Romania and Bulgaria. The others are at varying stages of the lengthy EU accession process, with Bosnia due to start the first step next month.
The EU has made improving the rule of law, governance and other reforms conditions for EU accession.
Speaking with Costa at a later seminar, EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said tackling organised crime and corruption remained "formidable challenges" in the Balkans.
"This needs to change if the region is to keep moving forward towards the European Union," he said, adding that those threats remained the greatest obstacles to visa-free travel to the EU for Balkan citizens.
"The fact is that EU states and public opinion are worried about organised crime in the Balkans," he said.
The number of reported murders in the region virtually halved from 2,185 in 1998 to 1,130 in 2006, the report found.
Costa said the lack of large-scale youth unemployment or steep income inequality and runaway urbanisation meant the basic conditions for high crime did not exist and the benign trend would continue as living standards increased.
Analysts point to continuing political instability as the major obstacle to foreign investment in the Balkans.
Serbia’s government was initially set to launch a tender for local carmaker Zastava in April, but its plans changed when the government collapsed in March and an early election was called.
Officials said the deal then received a boost when Serbia signed a pre-accession pact with the European Union last month, which once implemented will lead to improved trade ties.
Shortly after this, Italy’s Fiat announced plans to team up with the government to invest a combined 700 million euros ($1.09 billion) to produce two new car models at Zastava.
Risks to Western businesses though were underlined when Western stores and restaurants were vandalised in protests after the Western-backed secession of Kosovo from Serbia in February. (Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Mark John; editing by Andrew Roche)