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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Politicised institutions are key obstacle to fighting corruption in Montenegro

Montenegro has on the face of it made good progress in adopting anti-corruption laws, but frequent political scandals suggest they are not being implemented. Jovana Marović, Executive Director of the Politikon Network, a think tank based in Podgorica, and a member of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG), argues that – in the absence of effective law enforcement – public officials and politicians feel they can act with impunity.

Any evaluation of Montenegro’s anti-corruption efforts to date should start with the changes in the law. A whole set of new legal solutions saw the light of day under the auspices of the European Union’s conditionality policy and the country’s aspiration to get closer to this supranational community. However, more than seven years after the start of accession negotiations and with the membership perspective still uncertain, Montenegrin institutions have stopped even simulating reforms. The new legal solutions have produced no significant results, and some laws have even been changed for the worse.

The most recent example is announced amendments to the law on free access to information which introduce the so-called abuse of the right of access to information. The proposed provision allows an institution to deny an interested party’s request and refuse to make a document or information available on the grounds that the request is “unfounded or unreasonable”. The proposed changes also introduce the possibility for institutions to determine whether or not information is of public importance, and accordingly whether or not it is necessary to publish it. If these amendments pass, it will not only (again) call into question the country’s commitment to reform, but will also spoil civil society’s efforts to control the government and help combat corruption.

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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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