Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle East studies. Arbana Xharra is the author of a series of investigative reports on religious extremists and Turkey’s Islamic agenda operating in the Balkans. She has won numerous awards for her reporting and in 2015 received the International Women of Courage Award from the U.S. Department of State.
The six Western Balkan countries – Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Albania – are “captured states” by corrupt politicians linked to organized crime. These facts have been documented by various international reports, which raise serious concerns among EU officials regarding the enlargement process.
These countries are expected to meet the social, political and human rights standards that are fundamental conditions for joining the EU. However, the EU increasingly doubts that Balkan countries can meet these standards, because their social and political life is deeply tainted by corruption. However, efforts to root out corruption must not stop.
The six constituent republics that formerly constituted the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) were Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia, while Serbia included two socialist autonomous provinces, Vojvodina and Kosovo. The socialist state created after the German occupation during World War II included Serbs, Croats, Bosnian Muslims, Albanians and Slovenes.
In the early 1990s, many republics began to declare independence from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Despite the European blessing for the new states in the 1992 referendum, war soon broke out. Units of the Yugoslav army, withdrawn from Croatia and renamed the Bosnian Serb Army, carved out a vast swath of territory dominated by the Serbs. More than a million Bosnian Muslims and Croats were driven from their homes due to ethnic cleansing.
In August 1995, the Croatian army stormed Croatian areas under Serbian control, causing thousands to flee. Soon Croatia and Bosnia were fully independent. Slovenia and Macedonia had already declared their independence. Serbia and Montenegro also had their own governments under separate constitutions. In 1999, ethnic Albanians in Kosovo fought the Serbs in another brutal war to gain independence. Serbia finished the conflict beaten, battered and alone.
Today, these nations are rife with corruption. Lavdim Hamidi, editor-in-chief of the Kosovar newspaper Zeri, who has investigated corruption in the Balkans, says that “the Balkan states undoubtedly top the list of the most corrupt countries in the world.”
The Corruption Perceptions Index 2017 highlights that the majority of Balkan countries are making little or no progress in ending corruption. In these countries, journalists and activists risk their lives every day to expose corrupt leaders. The index ranks 180 countries and territories based on their perceived level of political corruption, with 1 being the lowest level and 180 being the most corrupt.
Of all the Balkan countries, Macedonia is the most corrupt, ranked 107th. Two months ago, former Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski sought asylum in Hungary following a wiretapping scandal for which the court found him guilty. Xhemal Ahmeti, an expert on Balkan political affairs, says Macedonia and other Balkan countries are the same as in Nigeria or anywhere else, corruption takes place behind the mask of tribal, family, clan and ethnic ties.
“The ‘elites’ of these countries,” says Ahmeti, “have always worked to convince their public opinion that they are wrongly accused of corruption by the West.” As a result, the EU and international observers in Macedonia will not succeed in combating corruption without direct and active monitoring on the ground.
Kosovo is the second most corrupt country in the Balkans, ranked 85th. Since declaring independence in 2008, Kosovo has offered its political leaders numerous opportunities to become extremely wealthy. “No matter where they served, all seemed to benefit far more than their salaries indicated. Top party officials became so wealthy that they could afford to hire personal drivers and bodyguards without declaring the source of funding,” says Jeton Zulfaj, who has spent the last two decades in Kosovo focus on anti-corruption strategies.
In Kosovo, where unemployment reaches an alarming 30%, politicians constitute the richest class in the country. Many large companies have grown significantly thanks to the support of politicians, who receive millions in return for “their efforts”.
Decades ago, the violent dissolution of the former Yugoslavia left a legacy of deep distrust and animosity between majority and minority ethnic groups in the newly created states that emerged from it. In Kosovo, the roots of the inter-ethnic conflict between Albanians and Serbs go deep into history. For most of the 20th century, Kosovo Albanians were submitted to discrimination, intimidation, even mass expulsion by the Yugoslav/Serb authorities.
In this environment, corruption flourished. According to the corruption index, Albania moved from 83rd to 91st place. Progress has been made in combating petty corruption in the public sector, but much remains to be done, particularly with regard to corruption in the justice system. Gjergj Erebaja, an Albanian journalist, claims that “the justice system, including prosecutors and courts, is under the extreme influence of the political elite. Politicians… use the unlimited power of the state to blackmail voters… Large private corporations are, to some extent, an extension of the political system.
Bosnia and Herzegovina has made no progress in the fight against corruption over the past decade, on a par with Albania. In this country, political corruption at all levels of government remains a major concern. The British Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Matt Field, recently wrote about corruption, saying:
The final cost of corruption is harder to quantify, but it includes millions of dollars in corrupt government spending, stolen funds and missed foreign investments. And this price always weighs on the taxpayer, the citizen, who does not benefit from the quality public services for which he pays.
Cornelia Abel, head of Transparency International, cited Serbia as an example of a “captured political system,” citing the excessive influence of its president, Aleksandar Vucic. “Serbia… is becoming a great example of one person in a position of power influencing everyone,” she said. Serbia fell five places in the corruption perception index, from 72 in 2016 to 77 in 2017.
The European Union-backed anti-business corruption portal states that “corruption is a problem in Serbia and the prevalence of bribery exceeds the regional average. Foreign companies should be aware of conflicts of interest within Serbian state institutions. Public procurement, natural resource extraction and the justice system are particularly vulnerable to fraud and embezzlement.
Montenegro has also made little to no progress in its fight against corruption and remains in 64th place. Transparency International experts said the 2016 alleged coup attempt only “halted anti-corruption efforts to some extent.” Montenegro is often criticized for not doing enough to fight organized crime and corruption, with Brussels demanding concrete results in the fight against corruption at the highest political level as one of the main conditions for the country to join the EU.
The endemic political corruption of the Balkan states is certainly one of the main obstacles that significantly slows down the EU integration process. However, since the Balkan states are eager to join the EU and the EU wants to draw them into its orbit and away from Turkey and Russia, both sides need to take specific steps to resolve the issue of corruption.
The EU is in a strong position to use its influence by offering investments, loans and access to the European market, against which neither Russia nor Turkey can compete effectively – nevertheless, they will stop at nothing to integrate into their sphere of influence. . In return, the Balkans should be required to institute political, economic and social reforms.
The EU should also insist on greater transparency and accountability, which would reduce widespread corruption among elected officials. To this end, the EU should re-establish a police and judicial presence not only in Kosovo (which recently ended after ten years), but in all Balkan states seeking EU membership.
Civil societies in the Balkans have a major role to play in protesting and organizing massive rallies and demanding an end to the corruption that has infected all layers of government, including the judiciary and law enforcement. If their respective governments fail to take clear and decisive action to combat corruption, people may have to resort to civil disobedience, which could include strikes, student walkouts and slowing down civil servants.
Addressing the problem of corruption in the Balkans is essential for the geostrategic interests of the EU as well as for the future well-being of the Balkans within the European community. The Balkans’ accession to the EU must be seen as a marriage of necessity that will significantly strengthen their collective security while significantly improving the quality of life and respect for human rights across the Balkans.