European Western Balkans

Western Balkans cannot be a stable region if the rule of law is not taken seriously

Photo: Twitter/BSC

BELGRADE – The concept of a captured state is a complex phenomenon that cannot be equated with the widespread corruption that exists even in some democratic societies. It was discussed during the panel “State Capture in the Western Balkans and the World” on the second day of the Belgrade Security Conference (BSC 2023).

Panelists agreed that capturing of state is a process that occurs at multiple levels, from capturing state institutions and the judiciary to capturing the media and free speech.

Nikola Dimitrov, President of the Balkan Centre for Constructive Policies and former Foreign Minister of North Macedonia, said that the term “state capture” by the European Commission was used for the first time to describe the political situation in North Macedonia when an external report recognized that multiple levels of state administration were subordinate to political party interests.

“State capture, to me, is when the state’s public institutions, prosecutors, courts, ministries, and local administration do not serve public interests and the common good; instead, they serve a political party and private interests,” Dimitrov assessed.

Jelena Pejić Nikić, Senior Researcher at the Belgrade Center for Security Policy (BCSP), said that the term “state capture” helps explain the situation in the Western Balkans and the differences between less-than-perfect democracies and authoritarianism.

“State capture involves extracting public goods while granting impunity to the perpetrator through the capture of independent and security institutions. It’s a systematic process,” Pejić added.

Legal expert Reinhard Priebe agreed that capturing the state is a process, and it is important to find where the whole process starts.

“We need to find and identify the initial points of this process. Such capture usually starts in the judiciary, security services, and other actors acting as watchdogs against corruption,” Priebe said.

Lenche Ristoska, Liaison Prosecutor for the Republic of North Macedonia at Eurojust, said during the panel that not always political elites are in charge of state capture. She assessed that economic and other interests can also lead the charge against democracy.

Speaking about the process of de-capturing the state in North Macedonia, she assessed that the Special Prosecutor’s Office, the body created after the wiretapping scandal in the country, was crucial, adding that that body also worked with many obstacles.

“Investigations against unlawful political party financing soon followed. That was the start of uncovering the depth of state capture. At first, the courts became reluctant to issue search warrants. Accusations of endangering state security soon followed. After it became apparent that anti-corruption investigations would not stop, the pardons started pouring in,” said Ristorska.

However, she said that in North Macedonia, the government has changed, but the system did not. Nikola Dimitrov also pointed out that it is not enough just to change a ruling political party; you need to change the whole system.

“Changing the power in North Macedonia was about justice. The promise was justice. Therefore, you cannot enact meaningful change just through the change of a ruling party. The corrupt system should also be dismantled. You cannot compromise on the values. I’m sad to say that the fabric of my country is nearly falling apart. People do not trust the judiciary,” Dimitrov added.

The panelists agreed that the EU very often does not have any other choice but to deal and negotiate with those who have captured the state, but over time, it becomes a big ally in the reform process.

“We need a real merit-based enlargement process. If we have a real process as an offer to the region, that would help. But the job must be done by the people inside the region’s countries. We need real domestic change. We can never be a stable region if we don’t take the rule of law seriously,” Dimitrov said.

He said that the idea that the local strongman can contribute to the EU integration process is far from the truth, as they rely on cronyism and the deconstruction of institutions. “Praised in Brussels, criticized in Skopje – name of the game for the captured state,” Dimitrov added.

Priebe agreed that a solution is not possible without an “from the inside” approach, adding that civil society and free media play very important roles in carrying the weight of reforms.

Jelena Pejić agreed that civil society remains a bulwark against state capture in Serbia.

“By monitoring the situation, explaining the detrimental effects to international partners, raising the alarms, mobilizing the citizens to make change,” said Pejić and mentioned how important the role of civil society is in the process of drafting the Law on internal affairs.

“They tried twice to bring a law that embodies all of these captured state trends. It has been a success story because we alarmed citizens and the international community. We had a strong and massive action to stop this law twice,” Pejić concluded.

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