BRUSSELS – Corruption remains one of the biggest obstacles on the region’s path towards the European Union, state the latest European Commission’s reports on the Western Balkan countries.
All Western Balkans countries made some progress in the fight against corruption (or limited progress in the case of Montenegro), except for Bosnia and Herzegovina, where no progress has been made in this reporting period either.
Even though some countries have adequate legal and strategic frameworks, all countries should aim towards improving track records on the investigation, prosecution and indictment in high-level corruption cases. According to the reports, another issue they have in common is the lack of human resources. Asset confiscation rates in corruption cases are described as low in almost all WB 6 countries.
Albania — Further supporting the institutions and improving their coordination
The 2022 country report by the European Commission assessed that Albania has some level of preparation in the fight against corruption and that some progress has been made. However, corruption remains one of the most concerning issues in the country.
The EC recognised the importance of the vetting process in the judiciary, demonstrated by the fact that out of 554 first-instance cases completed by the vetting institutions until 12 September, around 64% resulted in “dismissals, resignations or the termination of the mandate of vetted magistrates.” The cooperation between the vetting institutions and prosecution services must continue and intensify for the vetting process to stay on the path of steady advancement.
The Specialised Structure for Anti-Corruption and Organised Crime (SPAK) “conducted criminal proceedings and financial investigations in several high-level cases,” which resulted in the convictions of some high-ranking state officials. These include a former Minister of the Interior and a former Prosecutor General, who received imprisonment sentences for abuse of power and concealing assets, respectively.
With the seizure of assets worth almost 37 million euros in the first half of 2022, SPAK surpassed last year’s amount of 21.5 million euros. However, only minor amounts of these seized assets were confiscated, which leaves plenty of room for improvement in the next period. After the budget increase from last year, a staff shortage is identified as one of the main problems SPAK faces.
The report proposed that Albania should “ensure that SPAK further addresses high-level corruption, enhances its staff and resources, as well as its coordination with law enforcement, prosecutorial and judicial entities in charge of corruption prevention.”
When it comes to the institutional framework, a new body was created within the Ministry of Justice. The mission of the newly established General Anti-Corruption Directorate is “to conduct administrative investigations on denunciations for abusive, corrupt, or arbitrary practices regarding law enforcement, as well as to identify violations of law by public officials.”
It remains to be seen whether this body will be efficient in preventing corruption. In the meantime, Albania should continue and intensify efforts in combating corruption and exhibit more political will when it comes to this matter.
Bosnia and Herzegovina — Lack of political will as an obstacle to progress
Just like in the 2021 progress report, Commission has found that Bosnia and Herzegovina made no progress in the fight against corruption and organised crime and that it remains at an early stage/has some level of preparation in this area.
The report draws attention to the alarming lack of political will, harmonisation and cooperation efforts needed to tackle corruption in the country. It is stated that “the continued lack of progress at all levels increases the risk of backsliding” and that “political leaders and judicial institutions need to urgently remedy the situation.”
After the rejection of a state-level law on the prevention of conflict of interest by the BiH Parliament in May 2022, the situation of state-level legislation in the fight against corruption prevention remains insufficient. Therefore, the Commission urged Bosnia and Herzegovina to adopt a new state-level anti-corruption strategy and action plan. Such documents would provide a good basis for tackling the issues of coordination among anti-corruption bodies in the country and legislation harmonisation, which are some of the main obstacles the country faces in combating corruption.
Numbers show that the negative trend of very few convictions and finalised investigations in high-profile corruption cases continued in this period, as well. The Agency for Prevention of Corruption and Coordination in the Fight against Corruption (APIK) “should play a much more proactive role in implementing GRECO recommendations and aligning with international standards.” However, it is concerning that APIK had been without a director and deputy director for almost a year until the Parliament appointed them in July 2022, which demonstrates the lack of political will to prioritise the fight against corruption.
On a more positive note, the anti-corruption office of the Sarajevo Canton continued progress in corruption prevention activities, including the collection of asset declarations by the officials, whose number increased compared to the previous years. The Commission once again described the Sarajevo office as a “good example among cantonal bodies”.
Kosovo — The legal framework is in place, but implementation is needed
Even though the EC report stated Kosovo is still at an early stage/has some level of preparation, the improvement of the legal framework for fighting corruption proved that some progress was made. However, the effective implementation of these laws remains one of the biggest issues.
Kosovo fulfilled the legislative aspect of last year’s recommendations to a large extent by adopting the new Criminal Procedure Code, the Law on the Agency for Prevention of Corruption, the new Law on Asset Declaration and legislation on political party financing. This is why most of the recommendations from this year’s report focus on implementation, cooperation between institutions and strengthening capacities.
The EC assessed that the existing anti-corruption institutions, such as the Anti-Corruption Agency, would be more effective with additional staff and expertise. A law strengthening the Agency’s mandate was adopted, but the Agency needs to see an increase in staff, IT resources and training. When it comes to high-level corruption cases, the Commission perceives law enforcement-prosecution cooperation as the key to levelling up the fight against corruption.
Confiscation remains one of the most underused means of fighting corruption in Kosovo. The report states that the value of assets confiscated by the prosecution offices between July 2021 and March 2022 amounts to only 92000 Euros. “Confiscation as a means of targeting the economic interests of criminal organisations remains underutilised by prosecutors, who remain the weakest link in this regard,” states the report.
The implementation of the newly adopted legal framework on funding for political parties and campaign financing remains to be assessed in the following period. On a positive note, the Anti-Corruption Agency has been active in investigating annual declarations of assets which were submitted by 4 783 officials (97.7%) in 2021.
Montenegro — Strategic framework is needed to support proactive institutions
The EC reported that Montenegro has achieved some level of preparation in the fight against corruption and has made limited progress since the last assessment in 2021. Unlike some of its Western Balkans counterparts, Montenegro managed to proactively address corruption thanks to the work of its Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA). However, an adequate legal and strategic framework in line with European standards and GRECO recommendations still needs to be adopted.
Recommendations from the 2021 report were partially met. As explained in the report, Montenegro owes most of its limited progress in this area to the proactivity of ACA: “The ACA and its Council continued to demonstrate consistent proactivity in their work, including by addressing the caseload from previous years, and increased their outreach activities towards the public, media and civil society.”
ACA organised anti-corruption campaigns in 12 municipalities and conducted 21 anti-corruption training sessions for newly appointed public officials in the first half of 2022, compared to 17 training sessions held in 2021.
The report also states that even though ACA’s capacities were strengthened in the reporting period, more human resources should be allocated to ACA to improve its track record, as recommended by the 2021 EU peer review mission. Another institution that requires more staff is the Special State Prosecutor’s Office for Organised Crime and High-level Corruption.
The need to address inadequate institutional framework is supported by the evident overlap of powers between ACA and the National Council for the Fight against High-level Corruption, a body established in 2020.
Overall, Montenegro should continue working on the capacity strengthening of already effective anti-corruption institutions. However, it still needs to “effectively establish an integrated strategic approach to prevent and fight corruption.”
North Macedonia — High-profile indictments as a demonstration of improvement
North Macedonia remained one of the most efficient countries among the Western Balkans 6 in the fight against corruption. The EC report states that Macedonia has achieved some level of preparation/is moderately prepared in the prevention and fight against corruption. It also points out that some progress has been made “as the country continued to consolidate its track record on investigating, prosecuting and trying several corruption cases, including at a high level.”
The European Commission found that North Macedonia has fulfilled last year’s recommendations regarding the State Commission for the Prevention of Corruption (SCPC), which demonstrated proactivity – not only in opening cases but also in providing policy guidance to other public institutions.
Convictions have been issued in some high-profile cases, including the case against the former Prime Minister, who was sentenced in absentia to seven years in prison for money laundering and unlawful acquisition of property.
North Macedonia continued implementation of the anti-corruption action plan “Action 21” and improved its institutional framework by adopting amendments to the Law on Internal Affairs and the Law on Police in April 2022, as recommended by the GRECO report.
The report identifies full implementation of anti-corruption laws and further capacity strengthening as main points of improvement in the following year. One of the main issues the EC pointed out is the slow implementation of the national strategy for the prevention of corruption and conflict of interest (2021-2025) and the related action plan since only 20% of the activities planned for 2021 were implemented.
Serbia — Lack of an anti-corruption strategy remains a pressing issue
When it comes to Serbia, the report of the European Commission found that some progress has been made in the reporting period and that Serbia has some level of preparation in the fight against corruption. GRECO recommendations from last year were partly implemented. However, the EC is concerned by the lack of an anti-corruption strategy and once again recommends that Serbia prepares, adopts and starts its implementation.
It is noted that the track record on indictments and convictions slightly improved, but further improvement of track record on all levels of fighting corruption remains a priority recommendation. Like many of its Western Balkans counterparts, Serbia also needs to step up its efforts regarding the confiscation of assets in corruption cases.
The Commission is alarmed by the high risk of corruption in public procurement, considering the substantial number of exemptions from the Law on public procurement.
Serbia continued to implement GRECO recommendations, and its performance in corruption prevention is no longer considered “globally unsatisfactory.” GRECO also welcomed the amendments to the Law on Corruption Prevention. However, the report draws attention to the fact that more recommendations from the fourth and the fifth round need to be implemented in due time, which includes further alignment of the Law on Financing of Political Activities from February 2022 with ODIHR and GRECO recommendations.
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.