BELGRADE — Civil society should act as a watchdog, but also as a partner to the governments in advancing reforms and fighting corruption, and the progress Ukraine made in this areas demonstrated this, it was concluded during the panel Exploring Civil Society Perspectives in the Context of the War in Ukraine held under the auspices of policy forum Tackling State Capture in Southeast Europe: Delivering on the European Rule of Law Promise organized by the European Policy Centre (CEP).
The panel presented an opportunity for representatives of international bodies and the donor community to “recommend how the countries from the region could apply the best legal and procedural standards” and bring together all relevant stakeholders. In addition, the panelists pointed out “the geopolitical, economic and governance challenges in front of Ukraine, the European support the country needs, as well as the good practices applicable to Southeast Europe.”
Moderator of the panel, Ruslan Stefanov, Program Director of the Center for Study of Democracy, introduced the topic by emphasizing the importance of “creating a culture of anti-corruption,” as this is not a final destination, but a long term process. He also pointed out that the role of civil society is to hold those in power accountable. “We owe it to us and to the citizens,” Stefanov said.
Dirk Lorenz, Head of the Political Section at the European Union Delegation to Serbia, said that if there is something positive that came as a consequence of war in Ukraine, then it would be the recommitment to the enlargement policy and the “enlargement perspective in which the society believes.” Lorenz stressed the importance of rule of law issues, including the fight against corruption, for advancing on the path towards the EU and pointed out that the case of Ukraine proves that such fight can happen even despite war conditions.
“Enlargement is still about merits. There is a geopolitical dimension, Common Foreign and Security Policy is really important, but it’s still about the rule of law,” Lorenz pointed out.
He concluded that there should be more regional level cooperation among civil society organizations in the Western Balkans, as well as more cooperation with the civil society from the Eastern Partnership.
Project Manager for the Rule of Law and Anti-Corruption at USAID, Milena Jenovai, shared the perspective from her organization, which focuses on public procurement in Serbia. She highlighted that fight against corruption is very high on the agenda of US foreign policy and that USAID missions focus on fight against corruption through a multi-layer approach. Many strategic documents in this area have been adopted and Serbia is working on a new anti-corruption strategy, but “the point is how you translate that into action,” otherwise these documents won’t mean a lot.
“We engage with the civil society and media, who play a crucial role in shedding light to the breaches of public procurement law,” Jenovai pointed out.
Kateryna Ryzhenko, Deputy Executive Director for Legal Affairs at Transparency International Ukraine addressed the participants online and shared the perspective from Ukraine. She said that in Ukraine, the topic of fight against corruption is relevant not only because of the war, but also because of Ukraine’s EU aspirations and fulfillment of its obligations on the path towards the EU. Ryzhenko explained that Ukraine has made a lot of progress in the fight against corruption during the last decade, but that influx of billions of euros for reconstruction will present a challenge and risk for corruption, which is why the fight against corruption must continue by uniting efforts.
“Finally we see that there is movement towards governments finding political will and necessary enthusiasm to review and reform existing mechanisms. Now it’s important not to lose the momentum. It’s important for EU countries to use this momentum to push for a change,” she concluded.
Another representative of Ukrainian civil society, Olena Kupina, who is a Lawyer-Analyst at the Institute of Legislative Ideas, also emphasized the importance of partnership with government bodies and said that the civil society should not “shame and blame, but participate and share expertise.” Kupina pointed out the difficulties Ukrainian civil society faces when it comes to monitoring implementation of anti-corruption efforts due to the war, and she also called for better access to public information and more focus on local level administrations.
“Civil society should not only be watchdog, but a partner to government offiials. We should come together and look for common ground,” as she emphasized.
Ambassador Gudrun Steinacker, Vice President of the South East Europe Association, shared examples that demonstrate the state of corruption not only in the Western Balkans, but also in the EU. However, she said that civil society is getting stronger and contributing to a change and that the wish for democracy and the rule of law is the same in the Western Balkans as it is in Ukraine. Ambassador Steinacker explained that “state capture is about one thing — money,” as the people in power use money to stay in power, rig the elections and become even richer, and “in the end, they hope they can buy impunity.”
“Laws are not so bad, that is true, but the implementation of the laws is simply lousy and we know why. There is no interest in it. We have to name, shame and blame and ask for implementation and consequences,” as Ambassador concluded.