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News 18 Jun 13

Corruption Holding Balkans Hostage, Watchdog Says

The 2013 Nations in Transit report from Freedom House underlines that corruption in the Balkan appears to be deepening, despite pressure from the EU and other international institutions.

Besar Likmeta

“The process of EU accession has motivated important reforms in the Western Balkans and provided a formal mechanism that gauges each country’s progress toward fully democratic institutions and a functioning market economy,” the Washington-based watchdog organization said.

“However, the implementation of reforms essential to rule of law—particularly those underpinning the independence of the judiciary—has been incomplete, perfunctory, and undermined by a lack of political will,” it added.

According to Freedom House the ratings of the region’s best performers in the report, Croatia and Serbia, have shown very little movement in the last three years, and none at all in 2012.

Meanwhile, four other countries—Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Macedonia—have registered troubling declines.

“Critical reforms stalled in all Balkan states in 2012, despite pressing EU deadlines for Croatia and Serbia,” the report underlines.

“Across the region, political interests and personal connections between government and business regularly influence public tender and privatization procedures, [while] judicial institutions are overburdened and subject to political interference,” it added.

In the last five years, Albania has shown the region’s largest ratings declines across nearly every indicator. The downward trend continued also in 2012, as Prime Minister Sali Berisha and his ruling Democratic Party removed perceived opponents from key positions and replaced them with new appointees.  

In January, a landmark bribery and abuse-of-power case against former deputy Prime Minister Ilir Meta ended in an acquittal when the Supreme Court ruled that the video evidence of the crime could not be authenticated.  

One year earlier, the footage in question had triggered major anti-government demonstrations in which four protesters were shot and killed by security forces.

“The acquittal is symptomatic of a culture of impunity that persists to varying degrees in all of the western Balkan states, even those that perform reasonably well on other governance indicators,” Freedom House said.

Croatia has made greater strides in pursuing high-level convictions than any other state in the region, resulting in a half-point improvement on the corruption indicator since 2009. However, sentences like the one against former Prime Minister Ivo Sanader remain extremely rare.

“The public’s jubilant reaction to the sentencing of Sanader in November spoke to a frustration with the perceived immunity of Croatia’s political elite to punishment in connection with murky procurement deals and the flawed privatizations of the 1990s,” the report said.  

The government of Prime Minister Ivica Dacic in Serbia has also yet to establish a track record of systematically investigating and prosecuting corruption, especially in high-profile cases.

Despite shortcomings, Serbia was awarded EU candidacy in March 2012 after making progress in its negotiations with Kosovo over customs and other technical issues.  Neither Serbia nor Montenegro registered ratings changes in 2012.

Macedonia otherwise received a downgrade on judicial framework and independence after alarming violations in a prominent murder investigation and blatant political pressure on the courts by the health minister cast serious doubt on the prospects for comprehensive judicial reforms and anti-corruption efforts.

Freedom House says that since late 2010, the political stalemate in Bosnia and Herzegovina has undermined effective governance at the national level and impeded reforms linked to EU and NATO membership.

“One of the country’s two constituent entities, the Republika Srpska, continues to deny the legitimacy of central government institutions,” it notes.

“Meanwhile, widespread graft is becoming increasingly evident, abetted by the weakness of anti-corruption agencies and a dearth of political will to encourage effective investigations, prosecutions, and convictions,” the report adds.

Kosovo also received a downgrade for 2012 on corruption, in addition to its score decline on civil society. Although its rating for judicial framework and independence improved in 2011 as a result of court reforms events in 2012 suggest that these changes have not addressed fundamental weaknesses in the country’s justice system.

“The mysterious suicide of the head of Kosovo’s Privatization Agency—and a note he left describing political pressure for privatization bids—bolstered widespread distrust of national authorities’ role in the privatization process,” the report said.

“The rising visibility of corruption probes has failed to inspire more energetic or substantive antigraft efforts,” it concluded.

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