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[EWB Interview] Stefanov: Engaging civil society is a critical ingredient of successful anticorruption policies

The governments in the Western Balkan region have been announcing numerous efforts to fight corruption for years. Yet, it continues to be widespread.

According to the 2021 SELDI Corruption Monitoring System (CMS) data, the anticorruption progress in the Western Balkans from the 2000s until the mid-2010s has been halted or even reversed. Although the success of the countries varies, corruption remains an issue of concern influencing many areas of everyday life.

On new corruption trends in the Western Balkans, the role of CSOs and international actors in combating this problem, political will and other important conditions for fighting corruption, we spoke with Ruslan Stefanov, Program Director of the Center for Study of Democracy, during SELDI.net’s Annual Regional Policy Forum at the end of March 2022 in Skopje.

EWB: You have extensive experience in the fight against corruption – you have been dealing with it in the Balkans for more than 20 years now. Could you tell us something about the new trends you are observing in the region? Are there any new phenomena you see in the Western Balkans? Are there any major trends when comparing the situation 20 years ago and now?

Ruslan Stefanov: Corruption, like everything else evolves constantly. Or as SELDI has put it in its policy papers it is a never-ending journey for free and fair democracy, not a final destination.

In the Balkans, we saw a lot of progress between 2001-2016 when on average, in the region, corruption (bribery) declined by half. So, if in the early 2000s, on average, 4 our of 10 citizens in the region were victims of corruption, in 2016 there were already 2 out of 10 citizens. And since then the region is stuck roughly at this mark – 2 out of 10. And this is very high. On the same metric, in northern Europe, there are less than 1 our of 100 citizens victims of corruption. So this is a huge difference, which the countries in the Western Balkans need to bridge. Most of the Central and Eastern European countries were at 1 out of 20 citizens – victims of corruption at the time of their accession. We should not forget though that in many of the new members corruption victimisation went back up after accession.

There are two major trends that we observe in the Western Balkan in the past couple of years. One is that corruption has been gradually transformed from a market into networks – networks of political – economic circles, or as they are mor popularly known – state capture. Hence, we see less and less businesses reporting being asked for a bribe. The reason for this is that outright bribery has become less prevalent, giving way to more complex forms of corruption, which are carried out in networks.

The second trend, is the gradual decline in appetite for anti-corruption in local political elites. On the one hand, this is the result of the rise of international authoritarianism, with Russia and China in particular, being ready to do deals with local leaders without public commitments to democratic values and institution building. This has provided an escape clause for local leaders from EU conditionality. On the other hand, local leaders have turned more and more authoritarian, starting with Đukanović in Montenegro, then Gruevski in North Macedonia, Vučić in Serbia, and Rama in Albania. The common denominator for all of them is the lack of genuine, sustained efforts to tackle systemic corruption.

The more authoritarian state you have, the less visible corruption might be, because the state can hide it or suppress, but that does not mean there actually is less corruption, you just have much more state capture.

Currently, if we look at SELDI’s corruption victimisation data alone, there are essentially two groups of countries in the Western Balkans, each with very diverse representatives. One is the group with North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Kosovo, which have a bit higher corruption victimisation, than Romania and Bulgaria when they joined the EU. But we only saw improvement in Montenegro recently, with deterioration in North Macedonia and stagnation in Serbia and Kosovo. On the other hand, we have relatively higher corruption victimisation levels in Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina. But while the trends is declining in the former, it is rising in the latter.

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


EWB: You said the causes of high-level corruption could be state capture and authoritarianism – what can CSOs in the Balkan region do to deal with them? How would you assess the role of civil society, as well as cooperation between them and state institutions? What would be the best way to improve it?

RS: Let me say first that there is a very strong correlation between economic development and anticorruption – probably the best anticorruption policy is quick economic growth, though it is by no means an automatic correlation. That is something we tend to forget.

The decade between 2000 and 2010 was a growth decade, with no global geopolitical tensions. The whole of Europe, the Western Balkans including, was growing quite quickly. That makes people more active politically, demanding changes.

The last decade was not like that. 2010-2020 was a very different decade in terms of growth, and with the war in Ukraine and the stresses of global super power competition and de-globalisation, it is unlikely that 2020 – 2030 would be a high growth period. Therefore, we are forced to assume that the stronger intrinsic support of anticorruption is gone, and we would continue to rely primarily on civil society efforts backed by the European Commission.

One of the critical ingredients of democracy, of anticorruption is working and engaging actively with the civil society, allowing civil society to check the concentration of power of the government. To be democratic, governments need to submit themselves to the CSOs checking on them, they need to find independent mechanisms to support their efforts, etc., because civil society organisations enable better governance and prosperity.

Civil society can help a lot in exposing corruption or by proposing ideas on how to deal with corruption, how to improve the business environment to reduce corruption pressure, how to improve the working of different institutions, etc. Many CSOs in the Balkans are doing that, including SELDI, but also many other grassroot organisations in the local level or city level or county level… But for civil society to take root and to become self-sustainable in our societies, there is a need for the state to start doing its core job of delivering rule of law and anti-corruption enforcement, in particular at the pinnacle of power. Without that, without the enforcement and without the successful functioning of the market economy, you can’t have effective work of the civil society.

Because civil society is as strong as it is enabled by countries and societies’ institutions. For example, I have not seen in the Balkans an effective channel of government supporting investigating journalism. This is one of the musts for democracies, because this is part of the democratic development, this helps you to improve the whole system and how it functions or delivers to citizens. The governments are not doing this and that is problematic.

EWB: We often hear that if there is a political will, then synergies between regional organisations and international support could be the best way to make some improvements in fight against corruption.

RS: Corruption is a very complex crime, which at the same time has a lot of enabling factors. We should bear this in mind. Legally, corruption is among the most complex crimes to solve because, it involves hidden transfer of financial resources, two parties that are interested in not disclosing or giving up on each other, etc. The higher up in the power pyramid corruption happens, the more difficult it is to uncover.

If you want to investigate corruption properly, you need a lot of well-trained expertise. Proving corruption in court is very difficult. Yet, corruption is also enabled by zillions of factors, on which any government can work to help bring down corruption pressure risks, and this is where EU accession is a particularly powerful tool, as it gradually shifts power to the citizens through legal and institutional approximation. But it is not enough, at least not in the short run.

You need political will – to invest into a system that will go even after the politicians who installed it. This is what true democracy is, investing in creating the system that will help prevent the abuse of power, even if it is your hands.

So yes, you need political will, that is true. But that is not enough. We need also very good knowledge in very different spheres, a lot of investment in technical capacity, as well. I would be very surprised to see major anticorruption breakthroughs in terms of successful high-level corruption investigations very quickly. That requires a lot of work. However, political will is the good first precondition. It needs to sustain the power of the political system to produce a peaceful transfer of power to politicians with more integrity who compete for the voter preferences. This is why it is so important to sustain democracy and stamp out authoritarian trends.

EWB: In some of the Western Balkan countries people lack trust in the EU. Data from the latest polls in Serbia show that if the referendum was held tomorrow, there may not be enough of supporters for the EU membership. Some other countries in the region also have this problem. On the other hand, we are seeing member states are not really interested in enlargement to the region. What is the role of the EU? How can the EU help countries in the region and civil society, and how can we help the EU?

RS: That is a question of political leadership essentially. Political leaders in the region have not been very honest about their will to join the EU. In the same way, the political leaders in the EU have not been very willing in how much they are willing to work and sacrifice political capital to see the Western Balkans as part of the EU. It is one thing to say that the Western Balkans are a part of Europe and it is another thing to act on it. Because acting on it, means confronting elected political leaders from the region, and actually changing their autocratic minds.

EC 2021 Reports on Western Balkans: Corruption is widespread and remains an issue of concern

There is another misconception that has plagued the regional debate recently. There has been speculation or at least an often-repeated mantra that there have been a lot of investments in anticorruption. I do not think so. If we look at the size of the investments in anticorruption institutions in Western countries, specialised prosecutors, civil societies that works on anti-corruption programs, audit institutions, inspectorates, etc., etc., these are much bigger than the investments in the Western Balkans in terms of creating anti-corruption capacity. We need to be clear – I do not think there is an overinvestment. On the contrary. I think there is underinvestment, if we consider also investments by the local governments, the starting conditions, as well as the lacklustre political interest in the topic.

Civil society needs to be more active in terms of reaching out to the citizens and explaining why democracy is good for the people, why its institutions of defusing political and market power concentration are ultimately in their best interest. Because that means more opportunities for business, more opportunities for economic development and more opportunities for social mobility. These lessons need to be repeated and demonstrated daily. That is why we say anti-corruption is a continuous journey. It is not an endgame. We should have learned by now there is not an end of history – managing corruption now, does not mean it would last forever.

There will always emerge new ways of concentrating and abusing power and we must always be vigilant not to allow this, which is what civil society serves for.

The EU is the best chance that small countries have in times of rising global power competition. Think of the years before the EU was there. Citizens of the Western Balkans need realise this very well. And they need to understand that in order to get a seat at the table, you need to make sure that your political leaders will not be abusing the EU system, and you need to convince fellow EU citizens that would indeed not be the case. Because the EU has already seen enough internal problems brought in by member states that have not brought their institutions up to standard, including from the last waves of enlargement.

EWB: And when thinking about external influence – how strong do you believe is the Russian influence in the Western Balkans? Do you see a correlation between this issue and the media capture? How does media capture enable corruption?

RS: The Kremlin has been aggressively peddling in the Balkans and internationally a governance model alternative to that of the EU. It is one based on state capture and the use of law enforcement to keep the private sector, civil society and central and local governments under control. Local politicians in the Balkans have been happy to pick up the model when they are in power and do business with the Kremlin, because it is an appealing prospect for incumbents, in particular when local populations have been primed for it by relentless propaganda. It is a big issue how the Balkans are going to respond to Kremlin’s aggression in Ukraine. I am afraid many have not been left much of a room for manoeuvre between political capture of local populations through international disputes (such as the Serbia – Kosovo one), the state capture in energy (such as the Turk Stream projects) and rampand media capture and propaganda. If we see the media landscape in Serbia, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in Montenegro, there has been a massive influence from the Kremlin and its most radical backers. So, governments in the region should be clear about it – when they say they want to join the EU that means they have to reject the model the Kremlin (and by extension China) is offering, including its political, military, economic, and media aspects.

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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