European Western Balkans

NATO Foundation Conference: Trust in institutions necessary to fight organized crime

Photo: Twitter/NATO Foundation

ROME — In order to increase integrity of government institutions in the Western Balkans and Black Sea region and their capacity to fight illicit trade and transnational criminal networks, countries should fully implement the effective reforms and not just for the sake of EU or NATO integration, it was concluded by the speakers of the panel Addressing Grey Areas at the NATO Foundation’s conference Balkan and Black Sea Perspectives 2022: Supporting the transition.

Lack of trust in the institutions and adopting policies without following on their implementation hiders the countries’ abilities to address threats such as illicit trade and transnational criminal networks. In turn, this threatens regional stability and further obstructs democratic consolidation and building of strong institutions, as the panelists pointed out during the discussion moderated by Al Jazeera journalist Harun Karčić.

Mădălina Mocan, Fellow of the Aspen Institute Romania, shared her insights about trafficking and the role of institutions in dealing with this issue. Although “trafficking is sometimes a scapegoat to deny regional or international perspective of the countries,” many countries in the Southeastern Europe are still facing major issues in combating trafficking. 

“Why is good governance important? When it comes to phenomena like trafficking, what comes again and again in stories of survivors is the lack of trust in political authorities and institutions. We see this across the region,” Mocan warned.

She also emphasized the need for regional and international cooperation, as well as a unified approach to fight against trafficking. Statistics need to be improved and standardized in order to understand the full scope of the problem, because “if you don’t look for criminal networks, then you will do better at the statistics.” 

The difference of legislation across the EU is another issue, which is why Mocan emphasized the need for “common understanding of who is perpetrator and who is victim.” Besides better legislation and statistics, Mocan called for “joint investigation teams in taking down transnational criminal networks.”

“The more united we are as a Union, the better our chances to actually fight these illegal networks,” Mocan concluded. 

Former EU Ambassador to Serbia, Sem Fabrizi, emphasized the importance of EU’s role in the Western Balkans, but added that “there is a lot of work that can be done in cooperation with NATO, UN and OSCE.” While he agreed that Enlargement policy is back on track, he added that “enlargement cannot happen in a vacuum” and that many internal and external factors affected the EU’s attitude towards enlargement over the past years. As Fabrizi explained, enlargement needs to be understood in terms of politics and policy.

“Policy is the key word — when you hear the word reform, this is equal to policy. Policy work is not to be underestimated. There is a need for political steering there,” as Ambassador pointed out.

However, in the current circumstances caused by the war in Ukraine, geostrategic aspect of enlargement becomes increasingly important. This can also be heard in the language leaders use to speak about the Western Balkans as a geostrategic investment, as Fabrizi explained.

“EU can prosper in stability, peace and tranquility. We in the EU need stability, but that’s not enough. We also need rule of law and good governance,” he said. 

Fabrizi also reflected upon the Declaration signed at the EU-Western Balkans Summit in Tirana. He said the positive narrative is prevailing, with the mentioning of accelerating accession process and gradual integration. He also drew attention to the fact that 9 out of 33 paragraphs of the Declaration are connected to security. 

“What’s important is that both sides recognize that we have the instruments to address issues such as migration, disinformation, cybersecurity… Those issues need to be dealt with in a common way,” Fabrizi stated.

Ana Đurnić, Public Policy Researcher at Institut Alternativa from Montenegro, offered a perspective on the EU and NATO related reforms from her own country. While the devotion to EU path is something all governments have in common, their record on implementing the adopted reforms remains inconsistent and questionable. 

“We have seen technical accomplishment of EU requests, but all these processes are not truly reforming the country from the inside and the citizens are not seeing the benefits of these reforms happening,” Đurnić warned.

She also emphasized the need for better monitoring of implementation of reforms and mechanisms that would prevent backsliding when progress is once achieved. 

Đurnić offered the example of Montenegro’s NATO integration, explaining that during the process, there were improvements in transparency and governance of the security sector, but once the country joined the Alliance, it started backsliding on security sector reform. Confidential procurement and nontransparent public spending remain an issue of concern. 

“We should start seeing all of these processes as a mean and not a goal in order to implement reforms for the sake of citizens. Then integration will come as a result. For many years it has been otherwise. Check the boxes, adopt this law, form this council, do this reform… But there is a serious lack of results,” as Đurnić pointed out. 

Governments should stop allowing and encouraging behavior of third actors that threatens democratic processes, as she concluded. 

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