The overall pace of fighting corruption has slowed down and the track record in most countries is far from meeting the requirements for membership – this is one of the conclusions made by European Commission (EC) in the recently published enlargement package for Western Balkans.

The area of fight against corruption shows mixed results among the four EU candidate countries in the Western Balkans – Montenegro, Serbia, North Macedonia and Albania. While the countries in the earlier stages of the EU accession process seem to be speeding up or continuing to conduct reforms in the area of rule of law (Albania and North Macedonia), the frontrunners (Montenegro and Serbia) are slowing down. Although the reform processes in these four countries are on different stages, what is common for them is that all need to step-up the efforts and produce results in the fight against corruption (track record), especially high-level corruption.

As the EU officials started emphasising that the economic assistance will be linked to the achieved reforms in key areas and the new enlargement methodology envisages more rigorous conditionality, improvement of results in areas of fight against corruption and rule of law will be needed more than ever if these countries intend to become EU members in the foreseeable future.

This article shows that the successful implementation of the vetting process in Albania will be the key for the fight against corruption while the trial of the perpetrators in the wiretapping cases will be the most important challenge in North Macedonia in the period to come. In Montenegro there is a new hope for acceleration of the EU accession process with the opposition winning the parliamentary election, while Serbian ruling elite will have to work to make the environment suitable for political pluralism and change the policy of inactivity when it comes to high-level corruption.

The compromise in the Montenegrin Parliament is needed for reforms to kick-in

Montenegro received the European Commission Report amid its political transition, as the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) lost majority after the August parliamentary election for the first time after 30 years, and the negotiations for establishment of the new Government are ongoing. According to the preliminary agreement of the new parliamentary majority, depoliticization of institutions and fight against corruption and organized crime will be the priority on the new Government’s Agenda.

This year’s EC report states that Montenegro achieved limited progress in the fight against corruption and points out many deficiencies in the area of rule of law.

The progress of Montenegro in the EU accession process is “one step forward, two steps back”, based on the overall score in the report (3,18 out of 5), which is slightly better than last year, but identical to the year 2016, said Ana Đurnić, Public Policy Researcher from Institute Alternative (IA) from Podgorica.

“The area of fight against corruption is not the exception, on the contrary, it dictates the progress in negotiations, which reflects on the average score”, Đurnić said.

In her opinion, once the new majority is formed it needs to profit on the reforms stemming from the accession negotiations process, which the people voted for on the elections in August, and not on the methods of the previous Government.

“There is a need to solve, and not deepen the cross-cutting issues such as politicization of institutions, party employment, independence of the judiciary and other institutions (Agency for Prevention of Corruption, Agency for Protection of Personal Data etc.)”, Đurnić explained and added that the involvement of the Minister of Justice in the work of Judicial Council is something that the new majority needs to abolish, as it was pointed out by the European Commission.

Commenting on how the European Commission saw the work of the Agency for Prevention of Corruption, she said that EC noted that the work of this institution is problematic in terms of independence, setting of priorities, selectivity and quality of decisions.

“Agency is the institution that in the past was used for political battles, something that needs to stop happening”, Đurnić pointed out.

There is also much space remains for improvement in the area of free access to information, where inadequate legal solutions prevent citizens to fully exercise their right to access the information of public importance.

“The intention of the outgoing government was to adopt a new law that would further cause backsliding in this area, which was prevented by the COVID-19 pandemic, so this may be one of the first points that the new government definitely must address. The inadequate formulation in the Law on Free Access to Information from 2017, which exploits the business and tax secrets as reasons for hiding of information and endless rejections of requests, has not brought anything good in this area, so new and more advanced legal solutions are necessary”, Đurnić said.

The commitment to the EU integration process needs to be demonstrated by the new parliamentary majority, but also by the opposition.

“There is no fight against corruption with good results without an efficient judiciary. If the government and the opposition do not make good and quality compromises regarding these solutions, I am completely sure that the assessments in the next report of the European Commission will be similar to this year’s, only names will be different”, Đurnić concluded.

Number of finalized high-level corruption free falling in Serbia

Serbia was faced with the most critical European Commission Report so far, especially regarding the political criteria for membership and rule of law, where the new assessment grade was added – very limited progress.

The overall bitter taste of the report is softened by the solid progress in the economic criteria, which did not prevent the civil society experts to conclude that the country might be facing suspension of negotiation with the EU if something fundamentally does not change. However, the most powerful political figures, President and the Prime minister, tried to discredit the report as “politically biased” and “unfounded” in some parts, while praising its assessment accuracy in economic achievements.

Regarding the fight against corruption as one of the key aspects of the rule law, Serbia has had limited progress for two years in a row. The fact that corruption is still widespread in Serbian society and is a “matter of concern”, has been noted not only by the EC report but also by President Vučić for the Kleine Zeitung. This kind of statement from the President can rarely be heard in the government-controlled media in the country, where every corruption allegation is treated as the political attack on the President.

“The evidence that the corruption is a very significant problem lays in the fact that it has been mentioned in the report as part of every condition for EU integration – political criteria, rule of law, economic development, public administration”, Transparency Serbia said in the statement commenting the new EC Report.

Transparency Serbia also mentioned that this year’s report points out the inadmissible practice of public procurement and public-private partnerships being contracted based on the inter-governmental agreements and special procedures, instead on public procurement law.

Regarding the new Law on Prevention of Corruption, Report noted that the law entered into force and the Agency for Prevention of Corruption’s capacity building for its implementation has been ongoing.

What causes serious concern is that the problem with the track-record in finalization of the high-level corruption cases has been repeating over the years, as the number of finalized cases dropped in comparison to the two previous years.  According to the EU Commission, every third case ended with the plea agreement and every tenth with the confiscation of assets.

The poor performance in the free access of information has also been noted by EC, as the public authorities in most cases did not comply with the obligation to provide data to the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance. There is also need for whistle-blower protection to be ensured and whistle-blower reports investigated in accordance to the law, and the Report explicitly mentioned the case of Krušik when the whistle-blower was detained and is still suspended for alarming the public about the corruption in the state-owned arms company.

The Government has to establish systematic cooperation and consultation on draft laws with the Anti-Corruption Council that is active in exposing and analysing systematic corruption, Report mentioned. The relations between the Government and the Council have been very tense lately, as the Council made allegations in public about the possible corruption and lack of transparency in the ongoing railway projects and contracts of the state-owned company Telekom.

Government of Serbia building; Photo: WIkimedia Commons

Wiretap cases continue to be the big test for North Macedonia’s judiciary

Although corruption is prevalent and remains an issue of concern, similar to the other candidate countries in the Western Balkans, North Macedonia made good progress in the fight against corruption in the previous period and since 2017 seems to be on the steady path of rule of law reform process.

The EC noticed that there is a progress in investigating, prosecuting and trying of the corruption cases, including those on the high level, and the State Commission for Prevention of Corruption (SCPC), strengthened in terms of competences and professionalization, has been praised for its “proactivity” in opening new cases.

For Snežana Kamilovska-Trpovska, Project Officer at the Macedonian Centre for International Cooperation (MCMS) from Skopje, the most notable example of dealing with the high-level corruption cases is the verdict to the former Chief Special Prosecutor, Katica Janeva.

“The former Chief Special Prosecutor was convicted for 7 years in June 2020 in the first instance verdict in the so-called ‘racket case’ concerning alleged extortion and abuse of office concerning a case of the Special Prosecutor’s Office”, said Kamilovska-Trpovska for European Western Balkans.

Regarding the work of the State Commission for Prevention of Corruption (SCPC), she said that this body was very active in opening a high number of cases for corruption and conflict of interest and that it has been very transparent and cooperative with other stakeholders.

„However, what we can note is that there is a lack of collaboration from the other state institutions with SCPC. Also, SCPC is facing lack of financial and human resources that make it difficult to fulfil all of their authorities on time. There is no proactive approach from all actors to bring us to the full commitment for a real fight against corruption“, she pointed out.

Political commitment from the government to fight corruption can be observed from the fact that the new Government has established the position of the Vice President for Fighting Corruption and Crime, Sustainable Development and Human Resources, which for Kamilovska-Trpovska means the „readiness to put issue even higher on the agenda“.

Establishing the responsibilities for crimes stemming from the massive illegal wiretapping conducted during the regime of conservative VMRO-DPMNE will continue to be the great challenge for North Macedonia, after the mandate of the Special Prosecutor’s Office expired and the cases transferred to the State Public Prosecutor.

„North Macedonia is facing regulation of the status of wiretaps so that accountability for the crimes can be established. The implementation of the new law will show how this process will continue and what will happen with all the prerogatives of the former Special Prosecutor’s Office”, Kamilovska-Trpovska said.

She also explained that North Macedonia faces challenges regarding two applications in front of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg brought against the State, concerning wiretapped conversation cases. The processes are in an early stage and it is yet to be seen what the outcome will be.

Good progress in justice reforms, but the judiciary in Albania is still paralyzed

Despite the political polarization and complicated ongoing negotiations on the electoral reform, Albania managed to achieve good progress when it comes to both fight against corruption and the reform in the judiciary, according to the European Commission Report.

The re-evaluation of judges and prosecutors (known as the vetting process), that started in 2014 as the biggest judicial reform in Albania since the fall of communism to bring independence, effectiveness and restore public trust in the judiciary, seems to be on the right path.

In that regard, European Commission noted that the vetting process „has continued to render concrete and tangible results, under the thorough supervision of the International Monitoring Operation (IMO)“ but in the opinion of Rovena Sulstarova, Governance Programme Manager at Institute for Development and Mediation (IDM) from Tirana, the situation in the judiciary reform is not so bright.

“The process is slow and the links between criminal structures and the judiciary seem to be stronger than expected”, she said and added that the judicial system is still paralyzed, and the cases have been piling up, which cast a doubt that the process can restore trust in the judiciary and make it more just and efficient.

“There are problems in terms of access to justice for the citizens and the juridical efficiency especially in the functioning of the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court. At the moment, the Constitutional Court is composed of four members that have already passed the vetting process, but it is not functioning because of the lack of the quorum, which should be nine in total”, she explained.

In the reference to the Supreme Court, Sulstarova pointed out that this judicial institution works with only three out of nineteen judges and that the promotion of judges to this institution is also closely linked with the vetting process.

“Currently, a small number of judges have successfully passed the vetting process and meet the legal criteria for promotion in the Supreme Court – a minimum of thirteen years of professional experience.  This means that the group of potential candidates for appointment to the Supreme Court is limited”, Sulstarova explained.

The whole process left some of the judicial institutions without the judges, for example, the Court of Administrative Appeals and the Courts of Appeal of Shkodra, Korça, Gjirokastra, she said and raised concerns whether the vetting process will be finished in 2021 as planned, having in mind the current slow pace.

It is important to note that the re-evaluation is not only happening in the judiciary, but also in the law enforcement for around 12 000 police officers total, including high-ranking officials, which already brought results in the fight against corruption, according to EC report.

Sulstarova told EWB that the most serious challenge in the period to come will be the implementation of the justice reform – the finalization of the vetting process and strengthening the fight against corruption, where the effectiveness of the newly established Special Anti-Corruption Structure (SPAK) will have an indisputable role.

“Essential to the fight against corruption is the seizure of assets from criminal sources, to restore public confidence in the justice system. The establishment and functioning of the National Bureau for Investigation (NBI) as part of SPAK, responsible for the investigation of criminal offences, is very important in this regard”, she pointed out.

This article was published as part of the project “Civil society for good governance and anti-corruption in southeast Europe: Capacity building for monitoring, advocacy and awareness-raising (SELDI)” funded by the European Union.