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Regional Policy Forum: Political will in the fight against corruption is essential

Regional Policy Forum in Skopje: Photo: IDSCS

SKOPJE – Political will in the fight against corruption is essential and requires the strong determination and effort of the country, it is said today during the opening speeches at the Regional Policy Forum “The Fight Against Corruption: The Western Balkans in Focus”, at Skopje.

Allan Jones, Head of Unit DG NEAR for Thematic Support – Rule of Law, Governance and Security explained that the EU is putting much more focus on raising stronger awareness of corruption in different sectors – whether customs, education, transport or energy. He pointed out that this requires political will which is essential for the fight against corruption.

“There is a strong expectation that the potential future member states uphold the rule of law. Clear progress in the fight against corruption is essential for the progress of the EU membership. Reforms in this context need to be deep and without compromise, and it is clear to us that only with integrity, transparency and high standards will make these reforms succeed,” says Jones.

He explains that there is a strengthened focus on these topics since 2018, with the Western Balkans Strategy.

“Through the adoption of the revised methodology in February 2020, further emphasis is also being placed on fundamentals – rule of law, fundamental rights and democracy, public administration reforms and socio-economic stability”, notes Jones.

As for the EU level, Jones explains that in the EU, the fight against corruption is the model of society the members are striving for, and that is central to the rule of law on which the EU community is based.

“At the EU level, the European Commission is systematically monitoring the anti-corruption measures in all EU member states, within the framework of the EU rule of law mechanism,” he explains, adding that at the global level, the EU has an impressive toolbox at its disposal for strengthening further the fight against corruption.

The US Ambassador to North Macedonia, Kate Marie Byrnes, notes that fighting corruption in the US has become for the first time a national security core pillar, adding that the White House released its first national strategy for countering corruption late last year.

“Reducing corruption bolsters national security. When citizens of a nation feel they cannot succeed within their system because of the corrupt systems of corruptive practices, we see dangerous ripple effects throughout society and the world. Corruption serves as a driver toward false or even more violent extremist narratives,” Byrnes says, noting that anti-democratic forces use weaponized corruption to exploit perceived weaknesses and division within and among the free nations.

She believes that the pervasive consequences of corruption are hindering the country’s chances of a successful future.

“President Biden captured this very powerfully when he explained corruption as cancer that eats away at a citizen’s faith in democracy and diminishes the instinct for innovation and creativity,” says the US Ambassador to North Macedonia.

She notes that the governments in the Western Balkans can establish the best practices to help eliminate some of the human factors of corruption, but that these changes require political will.

“I hope that those committed to change will not be afraid to stand up for what is right regardless of the politics,” Byrnes says.

However, Marko Troshanovski, President of the Institute for Democracy Societas Civilis Skopje believes that corruption becomes a way of life.

“Corruption becomes a way of how things are being done. People start to play with the rules of the game, especially in an environment where there are no sanctions. They either chose to play the game or to leave the region,” Troshanovski emphasises, pointing out that the fight against corruption is one of the key security threats.

But how can the Euro-Atlantic partners help the Western Balkans in the fight against corruption?

Troshanovski explains that there is a bundle of evidence that under political pressure, countries perform better in terms of good governance.

“It is not only the clear goals and achievements and benefits that the EU enlargement process brings, which makes them perform better, but it is also the pressure and support that partner countries from the Euro-Atlantic community give in this regard,” President of Institute for Democracy Societas Civilis says.

He also notes that the immediate start of accession of North Macedonia and Albania is an imperative, but also a credible prospect of EU enlargement of the region, as well.

In addition to this, he believes that the European Commission and the European Council should consider including the region in the EU rule of law mechanism as soon as possible. Troshanovski points out that 30 billion euros were made on disposal to the region over the next 7 years through the EU economic and investment plan, which, as he says, is a huge amount of money that will enter the region.

“We advocate quite often that the good governance the mechanism within the instruments for reallocation of these funds is not considering many of the aspects that fall under the fundamental clusters. This becomes a very serious objective risk –  it could be a misuse of funds,” Troshanovski says, adding that the good governance mechanism within the Western Balkan investment framework must consider the involvement of the civil society and the think tank organizations.

“They know the best the genuine problem of the country the best genuine problems of each country,” he concludes.

The important role of international partners

The first panel on „Anti-corruption diplomacy with trans-Atlantic partners“, presented the importance of international partners of Western Balkan countries in combating corruption. The participants discussed the role of European Union, its Member States, and US. They discussed key priorities, modalities, and further activities that anti-corruption diplomacy should take in the Western Balkans to improve the situation in the region

Misha Popovikj, Program Coordinator at Institute for Democracy Societas Civilis, explained that the idea of anti-corruption diplomacy is very simple.

“The transatlantic partners to the Western Balkans – EU, its Member States and the US, have invested quite a lot work into the development of the rule of law mechanisms, in supporting national governments into the region in building resilience against corruption, but also in supporting civil society and independent media in their capacities, abilities, and environment in which they operate and work. That is a triangle – civil society, media, and institutions. The only way to fight sustainably corruption is to include all of them in cooperating to a certain degree”, he said.

Russlan Stefanov, Program Director at the Centre for Study of Democracy, noted that when it comes to corruption, SELDI Corruption Monitoring System data show there are two periods in the Western Balkan countries.

The first one is from 2001-2016, during which Western Balkans were having a 50% decline in corruption victimization in the region and the second one is from 2016-2022, in which this has not been the case. One of the factors that could help in solving this, according to Stefanov, is the reengagement of the EU in the region with a stricter conditionality policy.

„We need to reengage with conditionalities, so there can’t be anticorruption talks when we do not see clear progress. There needs to be cutting funding, but also there needs to be reversed conditionality – if we see a positive reaction, then we need to support them“, he stated.

Photo: IDSCS

Although international support is very important, at the same time measures would have to be taken in the Western Balkan countries as well so if they have decided that want to be a part of the EU need to act accordant to that.

„We heard a lot of talks about the Western Balkans belonging to the EU, to Europe and so on, but at the same time, we have also heard a lot of, in particular with Serbia, that they will continue to work with Kremlin. That is not possible“, he explained.

According to Nikola Burazer, Program Director at the Centre for Contemporary Politics, corruption is one of the major issues when it comes to the overall state of democracy in the region and the prospects of the European integration of the Western Balkan countries.

He explains corruption is just one part of the numerous problems that are interconnected – state capture, corruption, fight against organized crime, media freedom etc., yet it is at the very top because the results in fighting corruption represent the evidence that some of the other aspects are working.

In fighting this problem, Burazer notes international assistance and international partners are very important for numerous reasons.

“First of all, basically, all of the reforms that are done in the WB countries are done at least theoretically for the sake of EU accession”, says Burazer adding that whenever governments justify some reforms, they are usually it is because of the EU accession.

„We can easily imagine that without this pressure coming from the EU, we would not see any major reforms when it comes to fighting corruption“, Burazer underlines.

He stetes that the support from international partners is also significant for civil society organization, which in the region of state capture has a very important role to play – they act as a guardian and has a big role in monitoring, issuing reports in different areas, and also advocating for the reforms.

“This is also the case when it comes to the independent media which play a very important role and are mostly funded by international partners, EU, its member states, US etc”, Burazer says.

Reforms in the area of integrity and good governance require international support

Vojtech Hons, Policy and Programme Officer, Sector Rule of Law, Security, Migration and Reconciliation, DG NEAR, European Commission, explains that the EU is supporting the CSOs in the Western Balkans, and it is taking an active part in good governance, rule of law and anti-corruption.

He explains that these are the areas that are in line with the key policy priorities of the Commission for the European enlargement agenda.

“Any reforms in the area of integrity and good governance require international support, but also regional ownership and political will to undertake them – to adopt the key texts that are in line with the EU standards, but also to ensure that they are implemented,” Hons says.

He points out that the mobilisation and action of the civil society come into play as a crucial element in the efforts to transform the governments’ systems in the region and it helps to ensure they become resilient to corruption.

“The role of the civil society organizations of the region in the area of good governance is essential for the advancement of the Western Balkans on their path to the EU,” Hons explains, adding that the EC recognizes this role of the civil society and that it is providing the corresponding support.

He adds that the EU funding under the IPA III program remains dedicated to supporting the civil society of the region in the years to come.

The State Commission for Prevention of Corruption of North Macedonia, Biljana Ivanovska, explains that international support is important for the countries of the region. She points out that there are numerous programs of international partners that are providing support to North Macedonia.

Rovena Sulstarova from the Institute for Democracy and Mediation from Albania, states that the key anti-corruption initiative in Albania in the last decade was the reform of the justice sector, strongly backed by the US and the EU.

“Six years later the justice reform on paper has been widely appraised by the government and the international partners. The reform has affected one-third of the provision of the Albanian Constitution. Meanwhile, in practice, due to its complicity, the justice reform has encountered many difficulties with the respect to its implementation,” says Sulstarova.

Photo: IDSCS

She explains that the reform brought significant changes – the number of judges and prosecutors decreased due to their dismissal from the system, once they did not pass the vetting process.

“The vetting process has been slow and as a result, it has negatively affected the functioning of the justice system. The citizens have also been deeply affected by this by being deprived of justice due to corrupt judicial officials still in office, and the postponements of their trials due to the long number of officials in the office,” says Sulstarova, adding that at the moment there are more than 9622 cases still in the courts.

Jelena Perović, Director of the Anticorruption Agency in Montenegro looked back on the EU accession process of the region. She explains that in the case of Montenegro, the support for EU membership among the citizens is higher than 80%.

“This shows that in Montenegro, the citizens and the representatives of institutions and organizations accept and support the values of the EU. This is something all of us should strive for,” Perović notes.

She adds that those values are based on the rule of law, and when there is a rule of law, there is economic development and prosperity.

Andrija Mladenović, European Policy Centre, Serbia, explains that the most important role of civil society is being an intermediary between citizens and governments and that civil society should primarily work on enabling citizens to participate in decision-making processes and in the process of monitoring what the government is doing.

“Civil society should create different tools and mechanisms for citizens to do so. Civil society should focus on raising awareness on existing tools that have already been developed,” Mladenović says.

On the question of how can we leverage international assistance in advancing anti-corruption while still maintaining responsibility and ownership, Ana Đurnić, Public Policy Researcher of the Institute Alternative, Montenegro, explains there is a need for more coordination and cooperation among international assistance.

“Aside from this event, I do not believe we have enough of such events that provide synergy and a joint venture of people and institutions fighting corruption, and especially donors helping to fight corruption,” Đurnić says.

She thinks there is a great gap in synchronizing the EU negotiation process and UNCAC implementation process.

“I think these processes could be merged, and I think we, as the civil society, have the opportunity to raise that question,” Đurnić concludes.

The event is organized in synergy with the Regional SELDI Project and is supported by the Delegation of the European Union in Skopje, the project “The Fight Against Corruption: The Western Balkans in Focus” supported by U.S. Embassy in North Macedonia, and USAID through its Civic Engagement Project

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.

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