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Fighting high-level corruption in the Western Balkans: Is the region moving forward?

European Commission; Photo: European Union

This year European Commission’s reports on Western Balkan countries pointed out some new deficiencies and recommendations when it comes to fight against corruption, but also highlighted the need for solving old issues. “Some level of preparation” and “limited progress” were the maximum achievements. On the other hand, some countries are still stuck in the early stages in the fight against corruption.

However, every Western Balkan country is facing the same issue according to European Commission’s reports – high-level corruption, with the lack of convictions being the main problem.

Regarding specific countries in the last round of reports, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo rank worst, still being in the early stage in the fight against corruption. Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro and North Macedonia are standing slightly better, with “some level of preparation” in this area.

When it comes to Serbia, the adoption of the National Anti-corruption strategy is one of the main pillars of achievements in fight against high-level corruption. This statement has been pointed out many times, not only by the EU institutions, but also by the relevant GRECO reports.

Recommendations for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Serbia include the need for the adoption or strengthening of their anti-corruption strategies. The other countries have already fulfilled this precondition.

Is there any progress from 2016?

 In all European Commission’s reports from 2016 until the one from this October, the EU’s executive body is pointing out the importance of investigating and prosecuting high-level corruption cases. This doesn’t mean that Western Balkan countries are immune to low-level corruption or that they have eradicated it, but instead that the importance of successfully dealing with high-level corruption strengthens the democratic institutions and restores trust in the system.

During the years, the Albanian justice response against high-level corruption generated some results, according to the EC’s reports. However, the reports from 2020 and 2021 stated that the final convicting in cases involving high-level officials remains limited. The same is with the last report: increasing the number of final convictions of high-level officials remains an important priority to further tackle a culture of impunity.

On the other hand, Bosnia and Herzegovina is facing corruption on all levels, and corruption including high-level officials was not even mentioned explicitly in the recommendations in the reports from 2016 until 2019. In the following reports, European Commission stated that “due to operational inefficiency and political interference, the track record on prevention and repression of high-level corruption remains very limited”. This country is also dealing with a lack of harmonization of legislation across the country and weak institutional cooperation and coordination, which is highlighted as one of the problems regarding the fight against corruption.

In 2016 Kosovo was commended for some success in solving high-level corruption cases. From then, until 2022 all reports are mentioning the same issues: not enough human capacities in the competent institutions, as well as the lack of strong political will, to effectively address corruption.

Over the years, Montenegro has made some progress, but the number of final convictions of high-level corrupt officials still remains limited. Strong political will and robust justice response are still lacking according to the reports. On the other hand, due to some previous progress, the report from 2021 is not even mentioning high corruption, which is not the case with the last report.

According to the reports, North Macedonia was the most successful among all Western Balkan countries. In 2016 the capacity to effectively tackle corruption, especially in high-level cases was under the “urgent reform priorities”. The following reports pointed out that “good progress has been made through further consolidating track record on investigating, prosecuting and convicting high-level officials and by making changes to legislation”, adding that “the Special Public Prosecutor has confirmed its leading role”.

On the other hand, Serbia hasn’t made any significant progress in fighting high corruption in practice. Some law framework improvements from previous reports have been made, such as the strengthening of the Anti-corruption Agency, but the National Anti-corruption strategy is still missing. Improving the track record of investigations, indictments and final convictions in high-level corruption cases are constant recommendations. European Commission’s report 2022 for the first time mentioned particular high-level corruption cases by name – namely the scandal with the Krušik ammunition factory from 2019.

Institutions are (mostly) there, but implementation is lacking

 Some Western Balkan countries have Anti-corruption strategies, while some still lack it. On the other hand, some Anti-corruption Agencies are working better compared to others which are lacking legal powers in order to be effective in practice. Some of them are supposed to have powers, but the other institutions are too weak to implement their decisions when it comes to high-level officials.

However, in the reports, almost all countries have been facing two concrete issues, at least at some point. The first one is the weak position of whistle-blowers who are pretty often the main actors in exposing high-corruption cases. In order to encourage them, the state must guarantee them protection.

The other one is constant urging for a seizure of assets discovered in high-corruption cases. Even with the final convictions, the process is not finalized without the confiscation of embezzled funds. The European Commission recognized that including it in almost every report’s recommendations.

Successful fight against corruption remains one of the most important preconditions for EU integration. The clash between systems and high-level corruption is just one cog on the chain in the whole rule of law chapter, but the one which seems to be the hardest bite for the Western Balkans.

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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