BELGRADE – The concept of the captured state is a complex phenomenon that cannot be equated with the widespread corruption that exists even in some democratic societies. This topic 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 state capture is a process that occurs at multiple levels, from the capture of state institutions and the judiciary to the capture of media and freedom of expression.
Nikola Dimitrov, President of the Balkan Center for Constructive Policies and former Foreign Minister of North Macedonia, said that the term “state capture” by the European Commission was first used to describe the political situation in North Macedonia when an external report recognized that multiple levels of state administration were subordinate to the interests of political parties.
“For me, state capture occurs when public institutions, prosecutors, courts, ministries and local government of the state do not serve the public interests and the common good; instead, they serve a political party and private interests,” Dimitrov said.
Jelena Pejić Nikićsenior researcher at the Belgrade Center for Security Policy (BCSP), said the term “state capture” helps explain the situation in the Western Balkans and the differences between imperfect democracies and authoritarianism.
“State capture involves the extraction of public assets while granting impunity to perpetrators through the capture of independent and security institutions. It’s a systematic process,” Pejić added.
Lawyer Reinhard Priebé They agreed that state capture is a process and it is important to determine where the whole process begins.
“We need to find and identify the first points in this process. Such capture usually begins with the judiciary, security services and other actors acting as watchdogs against corruption,” Priebe said.
Lenches Ristoska, Liaison Prosecutor for the Republic of North Macedonia at Eurojust, told the panel that political elites are not always responsible for state capture. She said economic and other interests can also lead a charge against democracy.
Speaking about the state decapitation process in North Macedonia, she said the Special Prosecutor’s Office, the body created after the country’s wiretapping scandal, was crucial, adding that this body also worked with many obstacles.
“Investigations against the illegal financing of political parties quickly followed. This was the beginning of the discovery of the scale of state capture. At first, courts were reluctant to issue search warrants. Accusations of endangering state security quickly followed. When it became clear that the anti-corruption investigations would not stop, the pardons started pouring in,” Ristorska said.
However, she said that in North Macedonia the government has changed, but not the system. Nikola Dimitrov also stressed that it is not enough to change a political party in power; the whole system must be changed.
“Changing power in North Macedonia was a question of justice. The promise was justice. Therefore, you cannot make significant changes simply by changing the ruling party. The corrupt system must also be dismantled. You cannot compromise on values. I am sad to say that the fabric of my country is on the verge of collapse. People don’t trust the judiciary,” Dimitrov added.
Panelists agreed that the EU very often has no choice but to deal and negotiate with those who have taken over the state, but over time it becomes a strong ally in the reform process.
“We need a real merit-based enlargement process. If we had a real process to propose to the region, that would help. But the work must be done by the people of the countries of the region. We need real national change. We can never be a stable region if we do not take the rule of law seriously,” Dimitrov said.
He said the idea that local strongmen can contribute to the European integration process is far from true, as they rely on cronyism and the deconstruction of institutions. “Praised in Brussels, criticized in Skopje – this is game for the captured state,” Dimitrov added.
Priebe acknowledged that a solution is not possible without an approach “from within”, adding that civil society and free media play a very important role in carrying the weight of reforms.
Jelena Pejić recognizes that civil society remains a bulwark against state capture in Serbia.
“By monitoring the situation, explaining the harmful effects to international partners, sounding the alarm, mobilizing citizens to make changes,” said Pejić and underlined the importance of the role of civil society in the process of development of the law on internal affairs.
“They tried twice to pass a law that embodies all of these captured state trends. It was a success because we alarmed citizens and the international community. We took strong and massive action to end this law twice,” Pejić concluded.