North Macedonia’s experience in trying to dismantle state capture: policy must be backed by research

Writing about North Macedonia’s experience in addressing pervasive grand corruption as exposed by leaked tapes in 2015, Misha Popovikj (Institute for Democracy Societas Civilis, Skopje) argues that efforts to dismantle state capture should be preceded by a thorough diagnosis of the problems.

Protesters in Skopje, April 2016. The demonstrations over widespread corruption eventually led to the fall of VMRO-DPMNE’s decade-long rule. Credits: Vanco Dzambaski (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Back in 2015, European Commission adviser Reinhard Priebe and his team of rule of law experts arrived in North Macedonia amidst a political crisis. That same year, the Macedonian political opposition had revealed audio recordings carried out illegally by the secret police, and uncovered mass corruption and abuse of office. Priebe’s task was to provide the European Union with a quick assessment and recommendations on urgent reform priorities in relevant areas – corruption in the judiciary, politicised administration, media clientelism, and the uneven playing field in electoral competition.

In June 2015, he delivered a document that set future benchmarks for assessing the readiness of the country to start the EU accession process. Shortly afterwards, a group of NGOs begun transforming these recommendations into specific reforms. The idea was to set a ‘Blueprint‘ – a guide of sequenced changes achievable within 12 months. The Social Democrats, then in opposition, vowed to include these recommendations in their reforms should they win a majority in the 2016 elections.

Widespread aspirations to join the EU provided leverage to these proposals. Priebe’s recommendations were, in essence, new conditions set by the European Commission for accession. The Blueprint reforms were backed by foreign embassies in the country.

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Can the European Union tackle corruption and state capture?

While the EU is far from a silver bullet, Dimitar Bechev argues that it is still a badly-needed ally in strengthening the rule of law in the Balkans. But for enlargement to make good on its original promise, the EU should take a robust stance and call out egregious cases of corruption. 

European Union Balloons, by Jonatan Svensson Glad (CC BY-SA 2.0)

When it set to enlarge in the 1990s, the EU brought forward three promises to Eastern Europe. First, delivering prosperity which would narrow the gap with the advanced countries in the West. Second, cementing peace and stability in a historically volatile part of the Old Continent at a time when Yugoslavia went down in flames. Third, Europe was all about good governance and the rule of law. Post-communist societies needed external help and encouragement to consolidate independent judiciaries, establish robust anti-corruption agencies, depoliticize and upgrade the civil service, foster a vibrant NGO scene and media capable of holding the powers to be to account.

When the EU enlarged in 2004, the prevailing sentiment was that this third goal had been fulfilled. Central Europe (Slovenia included) and the Baltics met all the benchmarks. Romania and Bulgaria, on the other hand, were an entirely different kettle of fish. While they did make it into the Union in 2007, the accession treaties empowered the European Commission to monitor judicial reforms and issue regular reports, as during the pre-accession period. The so-called Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) meant to give the EU leverage to take care of “unfinished business”.

In parallel, lessons learned from the Romanian and Bulgarian case fed into the design of accession negotiations with the Western Balkans: Croatia and, later on, Montenegro and Serbia. The much-discussed Chapters 23 and 24 (addressing the judiciary and the rule of law) offered a means to maximize pressure on governments to meet EU-set benchmarks in rooting out corruption in high places, not a trivial goal given the difficult legacy bearing on former Yugoslav republics as well as on Albania.

What has happened in the 15-odd years since? The record is at best chequered. The former star pupils have turned into the EU’s worst headache. Back in the day, one could simply write off Bulgaria or Romania as the outliers. But when Hungary and Poland have become textbook examples of state capture through dismantling the very checks and balances that make democracy worthy of its name and ensure transparency and accountability of decision making, it is painfully clear that the vision of Europeanization is in dire straits.

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