What we talk about when we talk about state capture: reflections from Serbia

A life lived in Belgrade is a life lived in four countries. A lot has changed, but not much has changed for the better. Slobodan Georgiev (Balkan Investigative Reporting Network) reports with wry sarcasm on the realities of life as a journalist under an authoritarian regime.

Belgrade in the 1970s. Credits: ivanjankovic1.

I am Slobodan Georgiev, I am a journalist and I come from Belgrade, Republic of Serbia. I was born in Belgrade in 1976 and I have lived there my whole life. I have never moved, yet I have lived in four different countries.

The Republic of Serbia became an independent country in 2006 after the dissolution of the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro. The State Union of Serbia and Montenegro was formed after the dissolution of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was formed in 1992 after the dissolution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

In the 1990s we, citizens of former Yugoslavia, survived civil wars, and citizens of Serbia and Montenegro the NATO bombing campaign too.

The country was outside the UN from 1992 to the fall of 2000.

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Investigative journalists must show citizens the way: We can clean up government without resorting to rancour or nationalism

In a reflection on the role of journalists worldwide, and in the Balkans in particular, Aida Cerkez and Rosemary Armao vent their frustration about one of the biggest challenges of investigative reporting: how to make people care.

Do citizens really want to know? Do exposes bring about reform? What’s the good of revealing corruption?

Any investigative journalist working the Balkans wonders about these questions eventually, usually after that laboriously reported story, which you spent months working on including by putting yourself in harm’s way, passes mostly unremarked upon. You want to believe the theory behind investigative reporting – that telling citizens the truth will turn them into agents for change – but does it?

Citizens are not idealists. They know that life is bad if you look it full in the face. So they don’t. They skip over or avoid altogether stories about nepotism, bribery, conflict of interest, theft and money laundering. What good is there in learning all the details of the dirty business they already know is just politics and big business as usual. Always was, always will be.

We journalists are the idealists, confident that shining a light on unfair and bad governance will result in fixes, sure that citizens will welcome and applaud our articles. Instead, they are more likely to hate the intrusion on their already stressed out daily lives.

Or worse, in some cases where reporting about corruption actually does fire up people – the result is uncontrolled anger that only leads to rising authoritarianism. For proof of this look no further than the protests that have filled the streets of Romania, Hungary and Brazil in recent years.

Citizens disgusted with greedy leaders have become increasingly willing to vote for extremists who promise to turn things around.

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Civil society needs support to fight corruption and organised crime in the Western Balkans

Civil society organisations (CSOs) and investigative journalists in the Western Balkans are critical to raising awareness about fighting corruption and organised crime, as well as supporting state authorities to develop effective strategies. But they lack capacity and resources to address these complex issues, while activists are often harassed and intimidated by the authorities and other powerful individuals. As Andi Hoxhaj (Teaching Fellow in Law, University of Warwick) explains, support from international organisations – both funding and security – is critical.

A rally in Belgrade, Serbia. Credits: Ne Davimo Beograd.

Corruption levels in the Western Balkans are stagnating. Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia saw perceived corruption levels rise in the past year, while Bosnia and Herzegovina remained on the same level, and only North Macedonia witnessed a slight improvement, according to the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) 2018 of Transparency International. Notwithstanding the CPI’s limitations, it gives a useful snapshot of the situation.

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Montenegro: Captured by Corruption

In the first of a series of posts by investigative journalists and civil society activists working on exposing corruption in the Balkans, Milka Tadić Mijović (President, Centre for Investigative Journalism of Montenegro) discusses impunity in Montenegro and the complicity of the West.

Montenegro. Photo credits: Jarek Jarosz, via a CC BY-NC 2.0 licence.

Last spring, a woman in Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, was shot in the leg in front of her apartment. Had the bullet hit the artery an inch further, she could have died. That woman, Olivera Lakic, an investigative journalist who has revealed links between top officials and cigarette smugglers, is still on sick leave. Montenegro is globally known for cigarette and heavy drugs smuggling.

Around Christmas a few years ago, a strong explosion erupted at midnight. The bomb exploded outside the office of the Editor-in-Chief of the daily Vijesti, the most influential newspaper in the country. Just a minute earlier, the editor had left the office. Had he stayed, he might have not been alive anymore. Nobody was held responsible for that crime either.

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Strengthening the rule of law in the Western Balkans: Why should the EU care?

One of the main conditions set by the EU for aspiring members in the Western Balkans is to strengthen the rule of law, but the success of these efforts has so far been relatively limited. Drawing on a new study, Tena Prelec (Doctoral Researcher, University of Sussex) explains some of the major challenges that exist in the region and outlines why promoting the rule of law should continue to be viewed as a key priority for the EU.

Many of the most pressing rule-of-law related issues are deeply embedded in the political, economic and social structure of the countries of the Western Balkans. Tackling them is no easy matter and requires multi-faceted solutions: the coveted trophy of fostering better governance cannot be achieved within a few months’ time, nor even in a five-year period (such as the length of an EC mandate). Instead, it needs a strategy that will skirt short-term victories in favour of long-term gains, while providing clear benchmarks, fair reward and punishment, and the use of uncompromising language in calling out abuses. The Balkans in Europe Policy Group study “Strengthening the Rule of Law in the Western Balkans: Call for a Revolution Against Particularism” sets out a wholesome strategy addressing the matter from an institutional, political and sociological perspective.

But, why should EU member states be interested in this topic? From a practical standpoint, it is understandable that European Union leaders and officials are sometimes reluctant to prioritise painstaking work that would only bear fruit in the long run, preferring to focus on maintaining stability (or the appearance thereof) and on more achievable successes. On top of the clear benefits for the Western Balkan countries, however, there are a number of pragmatic reasons – next to a host of loftier ones – why the European Commission, and indeed all the member states of the European Union (including the ‘outgoing’ UK), should be interested in ensuring that a comprehensive revolution against state capture and corruption takes place in EU accession countries.

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