Clingendael Institute: Destructive effects of state capture in the Western Balkans

EU - Western Balkans informal meeting, February 2020; Foto: European Union

HAGUE – The Western Balkans region is lagging in the process of joining the European Union due to the continuation of backsliding of the rule of law and democracy and the rise of authoritarian leaders and their grip on power, stated the Netherlands Institute of International Relations Clingendael, N1 reported.

They said that understanding how state capture functions and influences this decline is crucial if this region want to counter these authoritarian tendencies and improve the functioning of the EU accession process.

“State capture can be defined as systemic political corruption in which politicians exploit their control over a country’s decision-making processes to their own advantage”, the Institute said.

It used the case of Serbia to show how destructive state capture could be – not only for countries tangled up in state capture themselves but also for the effectiveness of EU conditionality and the credibility of the EU.

“With external actors such as China playing an increasing role in the Western Balkans, there might be an argument for increasing the speed of accession talks. However, without first seriously tackling state capture, it becomes hard to see how optimistic targets regarding the swift integration of the Western Balkan region into the EU can be reached,” it added.

Regarding Serbia, it said the country had seen a slow but accelerating decline in the rule of law and democracy since 2012, culminating in Serbia being downgraded from a democracy to a hybrid regime in the latest 2020 Freedom House index.

With the help of state capture mechanisms, Serbia’s ruling party, the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) led by Aleksander Vučić, has extended its power over every aspect of society and politics. State capture has historical roots in Serbia, going all the way back to the messy dissolution of Yugoslavia and late Serbia’s leader Slobodan Milošević government, which engaged in large-scale state capture and where current president Vučić served as the minister for information,” they assessed.

According to Clingendael Institute, since the SNS came to power in 2012, it has set in motion politicisation of the public administration, where loyalty to the ruling party is rewarded by employment.

“Appointments based on loyalty, and not solely on merit, represent a powerful way of connecting supporters (who provide votes) to your party. The importance of membership of the ruling SNS party as a pathway to jobs and opportunities is reflected in the party’s size”, the study said.

According to the study, public resources are used to control the media, which allows the Serbian government to remain in charge of the narrative that the media shapes about the Serbian government and the EU.

“As public broadcasters depend on state funding, the largest public broadcasters have a pro-government bias in their reporting. There are also various examples of attacks on independent journalists that are not proactively prosecuted, leading to self-censorship,” the Institute said.

It added the independent media landscape could act as a watchdog on the government, but that the state control prevented critical messages about the government from reaching the general public.

They stated that a critical consequence of state capture is that it can turn into an opportunity to capture.

“When a corrupt government oversees who receives (economic) opportunities and who does not, young and talented people often prefer to move away, resulting in the so-called ‘brain drain’ phenomenon, which is one of the main challenges in the Western Balkans,” the Institute’s analysis concluded.