Making Democracy Deliver in the Western Balkans
In 2018 the EU, NATO and the countries from the Western Balkans have a unique chance to reinvigorate the Euro Atlantic perspective of the region. The European Commission has rightly prioritized the rule of law and security, including hybrid threats, in its new Enlargement Strategy. The accession of Montenegro to NATO and the opening up of EU accession prospects for Serbia and Montenegro have been a strong signal for political engagement with the Western Balkans. Many incumbent leaders in the Western Balkans have expressed their desire for speedier, less-conditional accession, thus trying to implicitly avoid the focus on state capture and rule of law. At the same time, EU member states’ leaders have voiced their expectations that internal reform of the EU be achieved before any further enlargement happens. It is therefore imperative that the Euro Atlantic community deliver a much more coherent and persuasive response to address outstanding challenges in rule of law and anti-corruption, which have particular bearing on the regional security and prosperity but are also a key source of euro-scepticism in the EU and in the Western Balkans alike.
The countries from the region have not been this close to a breakthrough in their bid to join the European Union since the Thessaloniki promise of membership from 2003. This time around the EU and NATO membership prospects have been spurred by two distinct external threats, which promise to keep the political focus on the region for long enough to ensure membership in the two communities happens. The migration crisis of 2015 – 2016 has demonstrated the importance of the region as a transit route and its vulnerability to organised crime and radicalisation, which ultimately weaken Europe’s collective security. Russia has stepped up its interference in the Western Balkans, through a mix of hard and soft power instruments, and with the clear aim of disrupting the region’s NATO but also EU integration. Oligarchic networks from Russia and the region have used financial centres in the EU to invest in the region masked as EU investments. In addition, China has also raised concerns by supporting incumbent leaders in opaque deals, which hide from the public potential future strings attached. Corruption and the hidden economy are among the highest on the continent, youth unemployment is above 50% in some countries, and citizens’ trust in institutions has waned.
Local political elites should be made aware that enlargement at any cost without strong rule of law conditionality is not an option. Delivering reforms would require the successful triangulation of the efforts of reformist-minded local politicians, active civil society, and supportive international partners and donors. The EU and NATO, as well as major donor countries in the Western Balkans, such as Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the US and Japan, should keep their political commitment to the region high. The EU should engage directly with civil society groups in tackling corruption and state capture more effectively. EU also can be much more ambitious in its financial support for the region, proposing at least 1.5 times increase (instead of the current 1.2) of the available budget for the region in the 2021 – 2027 financial framework. Increased aid should be safeguarded with stringent control over the transparency and competitiveness of public procurement while its efficiency should be increased by reforming delivery mechanisms away from the government-to-government approach towards more direct engagement. The increased in EU support for the Western Balkans should focus not only on technical assistance through service contracts but on civil society grants, twinning, regional and international development agencies, supporting genuine local and regional anti-corruption civil society initiatives.
The main thrust of the endeavours in the region should be directed at tackling political corruption and state capture while solidifying the achieved progress against systemic administrative corruption or bribery:
- Effective prosecution of high-level corruption is the only way to send a strong and immediate message that corruption would not be tolerated.
- In parallel, anti-corruption efforts should be zoomed in at the level of public organisations, to follow up on the quality of implementation of the numerous formally adopted anti-corruption policies and plans and close the implementation and efficiency gaps. The EU should deploy in the region innovative anti-corruption performance monitoring instruments such as MACPI.
- An independent corruption and anti-corruption monitoring mechanism need to be introduced on the national and regional level in order to provide robust data and analysis and integrate both corruption diagnostics and anticorruption policy evaluation.
- Anticorruption policy development and implementation should benefit from regional level focus on the Western Balkans, exchange of best practices and support from the EU (in particular neighbouring Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania, Slovenia, Hungary and Slovakia) and the wider implementation of public-private partnerships involving regional cooperation structures, like RCC and RAI and regional civil society networks.
- The EC and national governments have to ensure the sustainability of civil society engagement in the region. Active CSOs, strategically collaborating with decision-makers and citizens to attain concrete results and evaluate progress towards accession, will be especially important for Serbia and Montenegro, as the timeline for their EU membership has been arguably already set at 2025.
- Next to improving technical capacities and restructuring bureaucratic frameworks, the focus should be put on further commitment and engagement on the political level and agreeing on a common good governance agenda for the EU integration of the region.
- Critical sectors with high corruption and state-capture risks, such as energy, should be addressed with urgency. Priority measures include increasing competition in public procurement; improving the corporate governance of state-owned enterprises; transparent management of large-scale investment projects; enhancing the accountability and independence of energy regulators.