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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Caught in a vicious circle: how corrosive capital perpetuates state capture in the Balkans

In discussing the mutually reinforcing role of authoritarianism and ‘corrosive capital’, Tena Prelec argues that it is not enough to attract foreign investments to stimulate economic growth that will benefit the whole population; it is essential to guarantee the right environment for them to create real value.

For people studying, investigating and living corruption in the Western Balkans, the most frustrating aspect is its resilience. In spite of the great work done by investigative journalists and civil society in the region – and much of it is of top-notch quality, as the numerous international awards testify – it seems that nothing ever really changes at the top.

Look at Montenegro: its most recognisable political figure has been the very same for the past thirty years. The situation is not much different in neighbouring Serbia, whose president (before that, prime minister) forged his career as Slobodan Milošević’s Information Minister in the 1990s and then warmonger Vojislav Šešelj’s right-hand man – before rebranding his former mentor, and his own ex-party, as political opponents. North Macedonia has experienced some change in recent years (name included), but the EU’s recent failure to reward its efforts by opening EU accession talks puts a question mark against its future prospects.

Political elites in the Balkans have perfected a system of patronage and clientelism that facilitates their survival and perpetuation from one electoral cycle to the other. This is a composite picture that includes a well-oiled game to ensure dominance at elections, the abuse of state resources through politicised public procurement, a nepotistic hiring process, and several other angles. Path dependency plays a role: in the Balkans, the pitfalls of post-communist transition have been amplified by armed conflict and international sanctions, as brilliantly illustrated by Slobodan Georgijev’s account in this blog series. But the methodologies of state capture have also become more subtle and sophisticated than in the 1990s. Conflict is no longer raging on the streets, brazen embezzlement of customs money is no longer allowed – and yet, most of the region is experiencing a democratic involution towards autocratic practices.

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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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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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