In the past two decades, the Western Balkan countries have undergone considerable political, social and economic transformations towards democracy and market economy. But the integrity of public governance remains a critical challenge in the region. The renewed global power competition and the resurgence of authoritarian models of governance create uncertainties that position the rule of law in general and anticorruption and state capture in particular at the core of the most consequential political project of the Western Balkans – their integration into the European Union.
SELDI’s annual anti-corruption forum, held on 8 April 2021, discussed the anti-corruption agenda of the Western Balkans for the next decade. During the event, the SELDI initiative presented its latest Regional Anticorruption Report, which provides a bi-annual multifactor assessment of the corruption vulnerabilities and anti-corruption capacity of the region. Ljupco Nikolovski, Deputy Prime Minister for Fight against Corruption and Crime of the Republic of North Macedonia outlined “Action 21 – Implementing European Standards at Home” – an eighteen-measures plan to speed up the institutional and anti-corruption reforms in the country. He explained that the government’s approach will rely heavily on the digitalisation of public services and registers, thus eliminating any subjective influence in administrative procedures. Nicola Bertolini, Head of Operation, EU Delegation to the Republic of North Macedonia and Giulio Venneri, Head of the Centre of Thematic Expertise (CoTE), Rule of Law, Fundamental Rights and Democracy, Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations (DG NEAR) at the European Commission confirmed EU’s clear commitment to the region, but also noted that the political will of the countries should be proven by tangible reforms. They underlined that the recently approved Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans provides an incredible opportunity for increase of the competitiveness and inclusive growth of the region. The implementation of the Plan however goes hand in hand with the “fundamentals first” approach, and ensuring that fraud, corruption, money laundering, and misappropriation are addressed with effective, dissuasive and proportionate criminal sanctions. Thus, the financial assistance of €9 billion foreseen in the plan could only be utilised if the countries provide sufficient oversight and transparency in the funds distribution.
The panelists agreed that addressing corruption is a complex issue that could take decades. Countries should not lose their momentum for reforms, nor succumb under economic and political influences of actors from semi-authoritarian regimes. The way forward could be sought in a multifaceted approach of concluding “virtuous alliances” among international and national actors, including the civil society, strengthening the EU conditionalities, and mainstreaming anticorruption efforts into a broader range of policies.