Corruption in the Western Balkans continues to be widespread – this is a conclusion that can be found in the European Commission 2021 Enlargement Package.
With progress in some areas and a clear slowdown in others, the success of enlargement countries in the fight against corruption varies. Countries that have not even started their accession negotiation achieved better results in this field than those that are considered frontrunners of the enlargement process. However, corruption in the whole region remains an issue of concern influencing many spheres of everyday life.
Thus, conclusions of the 2021 European Commission reports on Western Balkan countries remain similar as last year and most of the last year’s recommendations remain valid. Corruption remains present and further and robust efforts are needed in combating corruption.
Albania – Reaching final convictions in high-level corruption remains an important priority
According to EC, Albania made some progress and has some level of preparation in the fight against corruption. Still, the recommendations of the last annual report were only partially implemented, and corruption remains one of the biggest challenges to society and governance.
The report noted the positive impact of the vetting process on the fight against corruption. It explained that although the vetting of the members of the judiciary is an administrative process, it is yielding results and thus, it “remains crucial to restoring public trust in the judiciary and law enforcement bodies of the State”.
Furthermore, the 2021 report stated that Albania made further efforts for a solid track record in the fight against corruption, yet it added that it is still an objective that requires political will and further actions.
The European Commission warned that the number of high-level corruption cases remains limited. It recommended the data collection methodology for both corruption and organised crime cases to be further improved while reaching final convictions in high-level corruption cases should remain an important priority.
The report on Albania draws attention to the fact that the impact of anti-corruption measures in particularly vulnerable areas remains limited. It also stated that internal checks and inspection mechanisms within the public administration remain weak and ineffective.
The Commission explained the implementation of the Inter-sectoral Strategy against corruption is on track. However, there are weaknesses which “include the need to strengthen ownership, strengthen institutional capacities, improve proper budgeting of the strategy’s activities”.
Bosnia and Herzegovina – Long-term stagnation and a serious risk of backsliding
2021 European Commission report on Bosnia and Herzegovina noted this country is at an early stage / has some level of preparation in the prevention and fight against corruption. It stated that no progress was made in this area over the reporting period and recommends further efforts. Thus, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, corruption remains widespread, and its negative effects continue to manifest during the pandemic, explains the report.
As stated, in this field there is long-term stagnation and a serious risk of backsliding which is a consequence of both judicial officeholders and political leaders who have failed to tackle the phenomenon of corruption and actively obstructed progress.
EC warned about an alarmingly low number of final convictions in high-profile cases due to operational inefficiency and political interference. It stated that progress in this field remains insignificant, so it needs to be seriously stepped up.
No action was taken towards the adoption of new strategic documents at state and Federation entity levels. Their implementation, the report stated, should start with no delay and harmonisation across the country should be provided.
The report draws attention to the issue of weak institutional cooperation and coordination which continued to hamper results. As stated, the functioning and coordination of corruption prevention bodies among themselves and with the APIK continued to be ineffective, so Bosnia and Herzegovina should ensure their functioning and coordination at all levels of government.
Kosovo – The need for robust criminal justice response to high-level corruption
As EC stated, Kosovo is at an early stage / has some level of preparation. Limited progress was made, corruption is still an issue of concern and most of the last year’s recommendations remained valid.
“Despite efforts made, there is a need for strong and continual political will to effectively address systemic corruption risks, as well as a robust criminal justice response to high-level corruption.”
According to the report, lack of the implementation of existing legislation is the main problem. As explained, a key to effective implementation represents inter-institutional coordination and cooperation between preventive anti-corruption institutions and law enforcement entities, whose responsibilities continued to overlap.
Furthermore, a new law on the Anti-Corruption Agency aimed at better defining the scope of the Agency’s competencies remains to be adopted, stated the Commission. It added that the capacity of the Agency needs to be strengthened considering the new competencies of the Agency and effective implementation of the applicable legislation.
Since limited progress was made on the investigation and prosecution of high-level cases in the track record, sustained efforts are needed in this field as well.
Finally, the report draws attention to the fact that since 2018, Kosovo does not have an Anti-Corruption Strategy in force. There is a Rule of Law Strategy and Action Plan that include specific measures aiming to improve the institutional framework against corruption, as well as the assets declaration system and regulations on acceptance of gifts. Yet, the Anti-Corruption Strategy and Action Plan 2018-2022 that were finalised and approved by the government, failed to be adopted by the Assembly and the Anti-Corruption Strategy and Action Plan 2021-2023, adopted by the government, were not sent to the Assembly for approval, notes the report.
Montenegro – There must be strong political will in addressing corruption
Although Montenegro is considered as the frontrunner of the European integration process, corruption in this country remained an issue and, as European Commission stated, Montenegro has achieved some level of preparation in the fight against corruption. Limited progress has been made and corruption remains prevalent in many areas. There is a need for strong political for addressing corruption.
As stated, last year’s recommendation regarding further results on track records on repression and prevention of corruption and the efforts of ACA to address its challenges were partially met.
The track record of investigations, prosecutions, and final convictions in cases of high-level corruption increased but remains to be further consolidated. Besides, the track record on seizure and confiscation of assets and final court decisions in corruption cases needs to be further improved. The track record on the prevention of corruption is slowly improving, but sanctions imposed in general remain below the statutory minimum and do not have a preventive or deterrent effect.
“Anti-corruption Agency under new management demonstrated a more proactive approach, still challenges related to Agency’s independence, priority-setting, selective approach and the quality of its decision remain and require further and sustained efforts.”
When it comes to the institutional framework, in December 2020, the National Council for the fight against high-level corruption was established, chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister. The body, as explained, aims at addressing systematic problems related to high-level corruption cases and increasing transparency in the fight against corruption. The report stated its institutional role, relations with other bodies and its powers, as well as safeguards in this respect, still need to be adequately defined.
North Macedonia – Efforts in the fight against corruption should continue
Together with Albania, North Macedonia made faster progress in the fight against corruption than the countries which are considered as frontrunners of the EU integration. Yet, there is still a need for further efforts.
As the report stated, North Macedonia has some level of preparation / is moderately prepared in the prevention and fight against corruption and some progress has been made.
In April 2021 New Strategy for the prevention of corruption and related Action plan were adopted, after an inclusive process that involved all relevant stakeholders. According to the report, North Macedonia consolidated its commitment to preventing corruption and sanctioning corruption behaviour.
European Commission noted the country continued to consolidate its track record on investigating, prosecuting, and trying several corruption cases, including a high level. However, the report raised concern regarding the substantial number of cases of conflict of interest and asset disclosure involving top executive functions processed by the State Commission for Prevention of Corruption (SCPC).
Thus, it recommended North Macedonia to continue to increase the track record of convictions in high-level corruption cases, followed by confiscation of criminal assets, building upon last years’ positive results.
As stated, the country strengthened its institutional framework, especially the SCPC and the Prosecutor for Organised Crime and Corruption (OCCPO). The State Commission for the Prevention of Corruption, which has been allocated with new premises, has been proactive in preventing corruption and opened several cases, including against high-level officials. Yet, the European Commission added that efforts to improve its functioning should continue, especially by allocating extra funding for the recruitment of expert staff.
The report draws attention to the implementation of the Code of Conduct for persons entrusted with top executive functions that was placed in the hands of a Deputy Prime Minister which is incompatible with GRECO practice.
Serbia – Further decrease in high-level corruption cases
According to the report, Serbia has some level of preparation in the fight against corruption. The country has made limited progress, so efforts should be increased in addressing the shortcomings.
Most of the last year’s recommendations remain valid. Since the previous National strategy for the fight against corruption and its accompanying Action plan expired, Serbia still has to adopt a new anti-corruption strategy accompanied by an action plan, explains the report. Also, it added that Serbia should establish an effective coordination mechanism to operationalise prevention or repression policy goals and effectively address corruption.
The European Commission noted the positive impact of the new Law on the prevention of corruption on the Anti-corruption Agency. As stated, the new law strengthened this institution, its resources and its capacity. Yet, “there is a need for strong political will to effectively implement the full mandate of the Agency and ensure the increased trust of citizens in the institutions preventing corruption”.
The mentioned Law also presented shortcomings that could endanger its application. Thus, GRECO recommendation on it was only partially implemented. European Commission further explained that Serbia needs to continue implementing the recommendations in line with the spirits of the mentioned report.
One of the biggest issues remains the number of indictments and the number of first instance convictions for high-level corruption cases which further decreased compared to previous years.
Thus, the report stated Serbia should increase its efforts in addressing these shortcomings and step up the prevention and repression of corruption.
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.