BELGRADE, Serbia — A United Nations report released Thursday says the Balkans, a region once known as a hotbed of crime and violence, has become one of the safest zones in Europe.

"The vicious circle of political instability leading to crime, and vice versa, that plagued the Balkans in the 1990s has been broken," said Antonio Maria Costa, head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, which compiled the report.

However, Costa warned in the report's summary that the region remains vulnerable because of enduring connections between business, politics and organized crime.

The region includes 10 countries: Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Moldova, Bulgaria, Romania, Montenegro, Serbia and Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in January.

The bloody breakup of former Yugoslavia — the worst carnage in Europe since World War II — left the entire region in turmoil throughout the 1990s.

The report says that the levels of crime against people and property, like homicide, robbery, rape, burglary and assault, are now lower in the Balkans than in 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 says, in an apparent reference to the former Yugoslavia during the warmongering rule of its late autocrat Slobodan Milosevic.

Organized crime is also receding as a major threat, it adds, with smuggling of drugs, guns and humans through the region in decline.

But it notes that the Balkans remain a transit zone for heroin destined for Western Europe.

Some 80 tons of heroin smuggled from the Middle and Far East is believed to reach Western European markets, the report says, adding that "this flow of contraband is worth more than the national economic outputs of several countries of the region."

The trend of reduced crime is likely to continue, the report says, because the region lacks the usual factors that lead to crime elsewhere in the world: mass poverty, income inequality, runaway urbanization and large-scale youth unemployment.

However, the UNODC report shows that serious challenges persist, "particularly due to links between business, politics and crime."

"Profiteers of the past are trying to launder their reputations and money through business and politics," Costa said. "Future crime trends in the Balkans will depend on the rule of law, integrity in governance and political ability ... politics and business need to be better insulated from the corrosive influence of crime, especially economic crime."

The report says that "on average, Southeast Europeans are more likely to face demands for bribes than people in other regions of the world."

"Open societies, open markets, and open borders are the best way to fight crime in the Balkans," Costa said.

He urges countries of the region to strengthen the rule of law, and called on the international community, particularly the European Union, to provide the support needed to further reduce vulnerability to crime and instability in the region.

"While dispelling a few myths and raising the profile of the Balkans as a low-crime region, the main aim of this report is to stimulate the delivery of technical assistance that can further encourage the positive trends and reduce the likelihood of a return to trouble in the Balkans," Costa said. "The highest priority is, of course, Kosovo, where stabilization started later, and where crime remains a problem."