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European Western Balkans
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EC Country Reports 2023: Unveiling shared trends and persistent challenges in Western Balkans’ anti-corruption landscape

European Commission; Photo: European Union

A limited number of convictions involving high-ranking officials, selective judicial follow-up and political interference, and the struggle to implement anti-corruption legislation, are some of the most pressing challenges in the Western Balkans, show the latest European Commission country reports. The reports also note substantial delays in adopting key legislative measures, such as laws on anti-corruption agencies and strategies, hinder the effectiveness of anti-corruption efforts across the region.

Despite progress made through specialised agencies, concerns persist about corruption infiltrating state structures, particularly within the judiciary and law enforcement at high levels in every Western Balkan country. Legal penalties for corruption-related offences and delays in high-profile cases undermine the overall impact of anti-corruption initiatives.

Photo: EWB

Albania

The 2023 country report by the European Commission assessed that Albania has some level of preparation in the fight against corruption. It has made some progress in combating corruption, with high-profile convictions and financial investigations. However, the EU Commission expresses serious concern about the prevalence of corruption in public and business life, assessing that corruption remains a serious concern in Albania. Preventive measures, though in place, exhibit limited impact, emphasising the necessity for targeted risk assessments and dedicated actions, particularly in high-risk sectors, explained the Report.

EC Report highlights that Albania’s progress is evident in the convictions secured by the Specialised Structure for Anti-Corruption and Organised Crime (SPAK). The noteworthy cases, such as the conviction of a former Minister of Environment and a Member of Parliament in the incinerators’ affair, reflect a commitment to tackling corruption at high levels. 

The report also reveals that in 2022, 186 people were convicted of public sector corruption, with 7 high-level corruption convictions and 18 convictions within the judicial system. The increase in asset seizures from corruption-related crimes to EUR 38 million in 2022 is presented as a positive sign by the EC. 

Despite that, one concerning trend from the 2016 EC Commission Report to the one in 2023 is still the limited number of convictions involving high-level officials. Progress can be seen in convictions of junior or middle-ranking officials, but the challenge of achieving final convictions for high-ranking officials remains. Limited convictions in high-level corruption cases along with only partial implementation of the previous recommendation are emphasised in every EC Report from 2016. to 2023.

From 2016, Albania’s efforts to strengthen anti-corruption institutions have shown some progress, but are often incomplete. For instance, in 2021. EC raised concerns about the limited impact of the Anti-corruption Directorate and the ineffectiveness of the Anti-corruption Task Force. This prevailed in 2022 with highlighted partial implementation of 2021 recommendations and was a trend repeated in the 2023 Report. 

The level of progress in EC Reports when it comes to the fight against corruption in Albania reached its peak in 2018, with a grade of 4.0 which prevailed until 2021. When it backslid to 3.0 and stagnated since. 

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bosnia and Herzegovina is described as being in an early stage or some level of preparation in the fight against corruption. However, the European Commission’s recent report reveals a concerning lack of progress in addressing critical issues and implementing recommendations.

The Ministry of Justice’s delay in submitting a draft state-level law on conflict of interest prevention in line with European standards is a notable shortcoming. Moreover, selective and non-transparent judicial follow-up, operational inefficiency, and political interference contribute to a limited track record in preventing and repressing corruption, especially at high levels. 

According to the 2016 EC Report, a few of the negative trends prevail in the fight against corruption in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The reports consistently highlight the lack of progress in key areas, as well as political capture and lack of political will and genuine commitment. Lack of enforcement of legislation, the gap between declared political will and concrete results, and political capture are mentioned in every EC report since 2016. 

Operational inefficiencies and political interference contribute to the persistently low number of final convictions in high-profile cases. The Sarajevo Canton stands out for its continued corruption prevention efforts, although shortcomings in prosecutorial and judicial follow-up persist. The trend over the years, explicitly repeated from 2019 is a lack of harmonisation of the legislative framework across the country. The 2023 Report is just another one in the line that highlights this recurring problem that is left without any progress.

The overall level of progress in the fight against corruption in Bosnia and Herzegovina stagnated from 2020 with a score of 2.0 in the annual EC Reports.

Kosovo

Kosovo is positioned between an early stage and some level of preparation in the fight against corruption. Limited progress is noted, with challenges in implementing anti-corruption legislation and addressing issues related to political parties, campaign financing, and criminal confiscation.

According to the Report, the Agency for Prevention of Corruption handled a considerable number of cases, submitted reports for criminal proceedings, and initiated disciplinary actions for asset declaration non-compliance. However, challenges persist in the system for declaring and assessing the origin of property belonging to senior public officials.

Consisted challenges from the 2016 EC Report on Kosovo until now are lack of political will and low level of final confiscations of assets. Moreover, limited progress in implementing anti-corruption legislation is the trend noted in the 2022 Report which is again repeated in the newest 2023 Report.

Even though over the years there have been positive developments from 2016 in legislative reforms and the establishment of specialised units, the persistent challenges of widespread corruption and the need for improved implementation highlight the ongoing struggle in the fight against corruption in Kosovo. 

The EC also repeated the need for a strict criminal justice response to high-level corruption cases and in this regard mentioned the removal of the Head of the Kosovo Police Special Investigative Unit which caused a concern sending a negative signal about Kosovo’s commitment to fight corruption. 

The level of progress in the area of the fight against corruption in the annual EC Reports on Kosovo backslid in 2023 from 3.0 to 2.5, which was a stagnating score that Kosovo got in the years 2020 and 2021.

Montenegro

Montenegro has achieved some level of preparation in the fight against corruption, with progress visible through the Anti-Corruption Agency’s results. However, corruption, including high-level corruption, remains a concern. The Report on Montenegro specifically emphasises the need for an improved legislative and strategic framework, ensuring the independence, accountability, impartiality, and proactiveness of the Anti-Corruption Agency, which is a recurring recommendation from the 2016 Report. 

According to the 2023 Report, Montenegro has witnessed progress in investigating and prosecuting high-level corruption cases in 2022, particularly with the actions of the Special Prosecution Office (SPO). However, concerns arise regarding corruption and organised crime infiltrating state structures, especially including the judiciary and law enforcement at the highest levels.

Moreover, the SPO plays a pivotal role in the fight against corruption, but its human resources are insufficient, and office conditions fall below European standards. 

Despite the EC recommendations from the previous year, Montenegro has not yet upgraded its legal, institutional, and strategic frameworks for preventing and combating corruption. The 2021 peer review mission’s recommendations remain unaddressed, particularly those regarding the Law on the Prevention of Corruption and the Law on Control of Political Entities and Electoral Campaigns. The lack of inter-institutional cooperation and coordination, along with unclear mandates, roles, and responsibilities slow down any progress.

Strengthening the independence, accountability, impartiality, and proactiveness of the Anti-Corruption Agency in Montenegro remains one of the key repeated recommendations of the EC which is repeated in every EC Report from 2016, and is yet not on a satisfactory level. 

North Macedonia

North Macedonia is in between some and moderate levels of preparation in preventing and fighting corruption. Unfortunately, the recent period has shown no noteworthy progress, with corruption persisting across various sectors, causing heightened concern.

According to the EC Report, legal penalties for corruption-related offenses in the amendment of the Criminal Code raise serious concerns. This not only affects the application of the statute of limitations but also obstructs the authorities’ ability to effectively investigate and prosecute corruption cases, especially those originating from the former Special Public Prosecutor’s Office.

The continued number of cases from the former Special Prosecutor’s Office to the Public Prosecutor’s Office for Prosecuting Organized Crime and Corruption (OCCPPO) has seen convictions in some instances. However, the impact of the September 2023 Criminal Code amendments on former Special Prosecutor’s Office cases is significant, leading to the termination of some cases, explained the Report.

Delays and reversals in high-level corruption cases are a negative trend that is present in every EC Report on North Macedonia from 2016 along with political interference which undermines the capacity to tackle corruption effectively.

Moreover, emphasis in a positive light was given to the State Commission for the Prevention of Corruption (SCPC) since positive trends over the years from 2019 can be seen in proactive efforts by the SCPC. The 2019 EC Report emphasised that the new legal framework has improved the appointment of the new members of the SCPC and that it has taken important steps to proactively fight against corruption involving high-level officials across the political spectrum. The particular proactivity of the SCPC is mentioned in the 2020, 2021, 2022, and 2023 Reports noting the efforts in providing policy guidance to public institutions on preventing corruption and opening high-level cases.  

However, North Macedonia backslid over the years in the level of progress when it comes to the fight against corruption, especially in the 2023 Report. The peak overall score that North Macedonia got was 4.0 in 2019. which remained in 2020, and backslided in 2021 to 3.0, stagnated in 2022. to the final backslide in 2023. to the score of 2.0.

Serbia

Serbia has some level of preparation in the fight against corruption, with limited progress observed. While the EC acknowledges that steps have been taken to meet some GRECO recommendations, it emphasises the need for a national anti-corruption strategy implementation and effective coordination mechanisms. 

“The ratings given by the EC to Serbia when it comes to progress in the fight against corruption and other related areas have been very low for years. Moreover, such evaluations are often too favourable in relation to our observations on the same issues, and this can be confusing for the public in Serbia”, says Nemanja Nenadić, Program Director of Transparency Serbia. 

Delays in adopting key legislation, including the law on the Anti-Corruption Agency and the Anti-Corruption strategy are evident in the EC Reports over the years. EC Report on Serbia from 2016 urged Serbia to adopt laws on the Anti-Corruption Agency, which continued in 2018, until 2019 when Serbia adopted a revised Law on the prevention of corruption which was previously known as the Law on the Anti-Corruption Agency.

In 2020, GRECO concluded that the 2020 Law on Corruption Prevention presents shortcomings, and new amendments to the Law were adopted in September 2021. That is when EC urged Serbia to prepare a new anti-corruption strategy to establish an effective coordination mechanism to operationalise prevention and repression policy goals and effectively address corruption. Mentions of the need for an anti-corruption strategy are evident in the 2022 and 2023 EC Reports. Serbia remains without a fully implemented anti-corruption strategy. 

According to the EC Report, Serbia has seen a slight increase in final convictions for high-level corruption cases, but challenges persist, including a lack of final asset confiscations. However, it is explained that there’s room for improvement in the investigation, prosecution, and final court decisions in high-level corruption cases, particularly in asset seizure and confiscation.

“For real progress in the fight against corruption, it would be much more important that not a single case of suspicion of corruption that was pointed out in public remains unexamined, rather than the statistical increase in the number of judgments which is now pointed out,” says Nenadić.

The report also explores institutional frameworks, law enforcement, legal frameworks, and the strategic framework. Notably, Serbia needs to ensure that exemptions from the Law on Public Procurement align with the European Union acquis and the Stabilisation and Association Agreement.

The overall score of the level of progress in Serbia in the EC Reports when it comes to the fight against corruption is stagnating for the fifth year in a row with a score of 2.5. 

“In principle, it seems that there is a tendency on the EC’s part to stimulate the Serbian authorities to do at least some of what they were given as a task through the assessment of “limited progress”. I believe that the effect of European integration would be greater if the assessment approach was different – to observe whether all the key recommendations given the previous year were fulfilled, and that the assessment can only be positive if that minimum condition is met”, concludes Nenadić.

 

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