Corruption is deeply rooted in the Western Balkans. A 2016 survey by SELDI (a southeast European network of think tanks against corruption) shows wide distribution of low-level administrative corruption in all the countries. Albania, Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina ‘lead’ the group with 40%, 29% and 28% of the respondents reporting involvement in at least one incident of bribe, gift or favor exchange. Then come Kosovo with 22%, Montenegro with 20% and Serbia with 19% of the respondents involved in corruption. While two groups of countries are discernable, all countries still have very significant portions of the population involved in corruption.
Speaking less about low-level corruption, all of the countries show difficulty in attempts to control corruption in general. The Worldwide Governance control of corruption indicator shows that only Montenegro passes the 50th percentile rank, meaning that it is better than 50% of the countries that have been assessed. In the last three years, Albania (41) and Kosovo (40) show improvement albeit starting from a low bar, while the remainder show decreases, most noticeable in Macedonia (47) and Bosnia and Herzegovina (37) and less so in Serbia (46).
This shows a considerable problem for the Western Balkans countries – corruption is widespread, systemic and the institutions are relatively inefficient in tackling it. Herein lies the elephant in the room – state capture. Defined as the highest level of systemic corruption where entire segments of government are taken over for private interests, state capture becomes the new buzzword for the Western Balkans. The EU started echoing such civil society assessments in 2016 for Macedonia, but it continued to use it to flag concerns for the remainder of the Western Balkans.
The prevention of state capture is noted in the European Commission’s new Enlargement strategy alongside other rule of law issues. The heavy emphasis in this document on reforms needed to attain EU membership is certainly welcomed. On paper, the leverage of EU integration should not be underestimated. The level of technical assistance, benchmarks and assessments in the negotiation processes certainly helps. Montenegro, understood to be more advanced in the integration process, certainly scores better on the above-mentioned indicators.
Nevertheless, the question is whether the current and future reforms in rule of law will sustainably tackle corruption and build resilience against the creeping elites aiming to capture branches of governments. There are several issues here. All the countries must essentially build effective institutions in the executive and develop competent and independent judiciary and parliaments ready to call for accountability of the first two branches. One must change entire governance cultures in large branches of government, make the necessary human and capital investment in reforms to achieve this and leave ample space for independent media and civil society to do their oversight. This is no easy task.
The recent change of government in Macedonia is a very good example of the governance reforms predicament. The Social Democrats rode on the winds of change made by an anti-authoritarian social movement that demanded rule of law. Today, one can see at the same time genuine attempts at reforms in parallel to evident inertia regarding patronage and clientelism.
This is to say that state capture does not happen by accident and it is an extreme product of particularistic governance. Under the particularistic mode of governance, access to public resources such as healthcare, employment etc. depends on the closeness to certain elites. However, more importantly, it is expected (not necessarily justified) by large numbers of the population that those are ‘the rules of the game’ in the society.
Replacing the elite does not automatically ensure better governance. Even if there is political will, the moment when inefficient institutions create scarcity in public service delivery, the pressure builds to allocate such resources under the particularistic rules of the game. People cannot wait for reforms while they wait for social benefits, hospital beds or employment. And in the relatively economically backward Western Balkans, such scarcity is all around.
Particularism is therefore a form of social inequality. People in the Western Balkans seek to amend this by turning to those who can "get things done" – the political parties. A recent study of the INFORM project reveals that between 4.5% of citizens in Albania to 14% in Macedonia have turned to a political party for help. This ‘traps’ them in a vicious loop as the probability of them becoming clients to the party rises significantly. With a significant number of clients, incumbent political parties have advantage over the opposition. Weak opposition means less need for accountability so ultimately, a conducive environment for reforms is shrinking.
To sum up, there are three adversaries to any attempt at combatting corruption and clientelism in the Western Balkans. Elites that do not benefit from the change, inefficient institutions with weak governance cultures prone to pressure and social inequality making corruption or clientelism inexpensive.
The fear of backsliding due to unsustainable reforms is therefore reasonable. The governance backsliding in Croatia and Bulgaria remind us of this. While prospects of joining the EU can fuel domestic reforms, it is not clear whether the European Commission can provide the necessary means to achieve long lasting change. Building the resilience of institutions against corruption and clientelism cannot be decoupled from the need tackle to social inequality. In this way, the reform processes in the Western Balkans can address institutional development in both dimensions – building the capacities of institutions tasked with tackling corruption in parallel to improving the work in order to deliver better services to every citizen equally, without putting them in a position to be dependent on brokers like political parties.