Sunday

16th May 2021

Opinion

Corruption in the Balkans: the elephant in the room

  • The lack of results when it comes to investigating and prosecuting (particularly high-level) corruption cases contributes to developing a sense of impunity (Photo: Alan Levine)

Over the years, both real and perceived levels of corruption in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia have remained high.

Corruption is still perceived as one the most important problems with which these countries are faced.

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On the occasion of the EU justice and home affairs ministerial forum with the countries in the region to be held next week (18-19 November) it is, therefore, fitting to step back and look at what measures have been taken, or not, by these countries to comply with the recommendations by the Group of States against Corruption (Greco), the Council of Europe's anti-corruption body.

Preventing and combating corruption remains crucial for ensuring respect for the rule of law and sustaining economic growth and development.

But, the necessary reforms in those countries, to put it mildly, are not yet effectively carried out.

The lack of results when it comes to investigating and prosecuting (particularly high-level) corruption cases contributes to developing a sense of impunity.

Not coincidentally, many of the countries in the region are, have been or are likely to be in Greco's non-compliance procedures.

Greco's evaluations have focused on public sector integrity. Our work aims at ensuring compliance with and effective implementation of the Council of Europe anti-corruption standards.

These include developing a comprehensive system of preventive measures in the key powers of the state – legislative, executive, and judiciary. With this in mind, Greco dedicated its fourth and ongoing fifth evaluation rounds to these topics.

There can be no effective fight against corruption without an independent judiciary. Judicial independence is a matter of trust. People need to know that legal disputes will be decided impartially, fairly and in a transparent manner.

Ethics and judges' standards of conduct are an integral part of judicial independence. In fact, they are both sides of the same coin. Therefore, when judges do not live up to the high standards of integrity and impartiality expected of them, trust in the institutions fails and the rule of law is at risk.

All our member states have undergone their Greco evaluations of corruption prevention in respect of the judiciary. These include the five countries of this region in respect of which the compliance process is ongoing.

Greco issued a total of 27 recommendations concerning the judiciary in the five countries combined. Of these, only six have been fully implemented over a period of four to five years.

In three of the five countries, no Greco recommendation concerning the judiciary has been fully implemented so far.

The key areas where reforms are needed are the composition of the high judicial councils, including measures to prevent political interference in the bodies entrusted with ensuring judicial independence, the inclusiveness with which reforms are undertaken or the lack thereof, the development of a system to manage conflicts of interests in the judiciary and drawing up enforceable codes of conduct. There is no quick-fix.

These deep, profound reforms are needed for the countries concerned to develop a sustainable system of checks and balances on which our democracies rest, irrespective of the political majorities of the day. Therefore, political will to ensure judicial independence is crucial.

This does not mean that politicians ought to have control of or influence over the judiciary. Quite the opposite. Any perception or, even worse, real improper political influence on the judiciary will have devastating effects.

As regards the prevention of corruption of members of parliament, the situation is not better. Greco issued 23 recommendations in this area to the five countries combined but only five have been implemented fully. In three of the five countries of the region, no Greco recommendation relating to MPs has been fully implemented.

Developing codes of conduct for MPs and ensuring their effective implementation, including with sanctions in case of breach, managing conflicts of interests and introducing ad hoc disclosures where needed, declaring and publishing assets, interests and liabilities, ensuring that corruption prevention bodies are free from political influence, providing for transparency and inclusiveness of the parliamentary process are some of the key outstanding reforms.

Counting Greco's recommendations relating to corruption prevention of prosecutors, Greco issued a total of 74 recommendations to the five countries combined.

Too little, too late

Regrettably, only 15 of them have been fully implemented over a four to five year period. This is too little, too late, not least given the seriousness of the corruption problem and the obstacle it creates to the social and economic development of the countries concerned.

This is a reason for serious concern.

Countries concerned should re-double their efforts to fully comply with Greco recommendations. This is not only because there are required to do so under the Greco monitoring process or because of the prospective EU membership, but most importantly because it is essential to providing the people in the region with respect for the rule of law, for democracy and for human rights.

Political will is essential to make the reforms Greco has been calling for a reality.

Until and unless a long-term political vision prevails over short-term political interests, the status quo will persist, corruption will stagnate and will continue to be an obstacle to these countries' development and to the fulfilment of the aspirations of their people.

Reforms in the areas covered by Greco evaluations are not and should not be carried out to maintain grip onto power.

They are meant for the benefit of the people; to improve their everyday lives and to increase trust and confidence in the institutions and in the rule of law. At the end of the day, the institutions are there for the people, not for a cast of "happy few".

Author bio

Marin Mrčela, president of the Group of States against Corruption of the Council of Europe (Greco).

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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