All Western Balkan countries have, at least officially, committed to joining the European Union and promised to fight organized crime head-on, as one of the priority areas during their accession talks. The European Commission’s Country Reports have repeated ad nauseam that the key focus should be on having a track record in prosecuting organized crime with final convictions. At the same time, however, the Balkans remain at the center of the global organized crime nexus, as evidenced by police discoveries related to cocaine smuggling in Europe and reports showing high levels of criminality and low societal resilience to crime. How come the Western Balkans are failing to provide adequate responses to organized crime; and how is it possible for this all to take place despite international assistance and under the EU enlargement auditors’ detailed scrutiny? The answer comes as a surprise only to those who have not been paying attention to the democratic backsliding across the Balkans that has been going on for years, under the shadow of EU enlargement fatigue.
The Unholy Matrimony between Organized Crime and Politics
The first clear signal from the EU that something had gone terribly wrong came in 2018, with the publishment of the landmark Credible Enlargement Perspective, a strategic paper by the EU Commission that intended to breathe new life into the faltering accession process of the WB6. The document provided a diagnosis of the problem: “Today, the countries show clear elements of state capture, including links with organized crime and corruption at all levels of government and administration, as well as a strong entanglement of public and private interests.”
The fact that state institutions and criminal structures were inextricably linked across the region was no new information, but it was the first time the problem has been recognized and spelled out by the often times tongue-in-cheek European Union. Overt politicisation, state capture, undue influence, “stabilitocracy”, competitive authoritarianism, hybrid regimes: these are just some concepts comprising a complicated vocabulary that has been used to describe the same phenomenon that has been registered across the Western Balkans over and over again. The issue at hand is that political elites have taken over the state apparatus and subjugated it to their own, private interests, leaving impoverished citizens in an environment of ever-shrinking freedoms and rights.
In particular, these issues come to prominence in Montenegro, where a local strongman, President Milo Djukanovic, has been building what some called mafia state for almost three decades of uninterrupted rule, only recently to be challenged by a new coalition government that won the latest parliamentary elections. The regime change in Montenegro, and the following reforms that took place, led to the single biggest drug bust of more than 1 ton of cocaine in the history of the country. In Kosovo, after the war-time leaders’ long rule, the new Prime Minister Albin Kurti won the election running a joint campaign with now-President Vjosa Osmani saying they both “share a determination to end endemic state capture by a corrupt elite.” In Serbia, with the ongoing war on mafia that has been taking place for a year, it looks as if the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) started a final showdown that aims to get rid of the criminal infantry tentacles while preserving the political-criminal octopus that has been built by the omnipotent Serbian President, Aleksandar Vucic.
This unholy matrimony between organized crime and political elites represents the single biggest obstacle: at least based on early impressions after recent regime changes, the only way forward is not to focus on tackling organized crime as such, but by investing in democracy. After all, how can one meaningfully expect governments with clear links to organized crime to lead efforts to fight these very criminal groups?
This paradox emerges in a recent UNODC report, which found that the number of charges brought against organized crime groups in the Western Balkans has gone up six times, while the number of final convictions has been halved — meaning prosecution is twelve times less effective than it used to be. This report found that “the number of persons prosecuted for committing an offence as part of an organized crime group is increasing, while the number of persons convicted is on the decline, suggesting a gap in evidence gathering, constructing successful prosecutions and properly adjudicating organized crime cases.” One of the possible reasons for this is the state capture of the judiciary whereby, under political direction, law enforcement agencies arrest and indict organized crime groups in order to showcase their determination to the EU and the like, whereas the cases are poorly built and have no chance in the court of law.
The Curse of EU Enlargement
How is it possible that, despite the international community’s robust involvement, billions in development aid, and very strict — yet fair — assessments by Brussels bureaucrats, these terrible developments have gone unnoticed and unaddressed for so long?
A point made by Jan-Werner Müller, professor of politics at Princeton University, not so long ago on the issue of Hungarian and Polish democratic backsliding within the EU translates well to the Western Balkans. He claimed that the “technocratic liberal repair crew from Brussels” assumes democracy will always be taken care of by nation-states and is only concerned with the more narrowly defined rule of law. This is why “the undermining of political rights and independent institutions appears like a technical glitch, not as the conscious authoritarian project it actually is.” Once considered a technical glitch, it is then assumed that issues around the rule of law can then be “fixed” by adopting action plans, road maps, building capacities, developing strategies, establishing cross-border cooperation, or using any other tool from the enlargement policy repertoire, including financial assistance. These are all, of course, necessary and sometimes useful preconditions but are destined to failure owing to a fundamental misconception of what needs to be fixed.
To add insult to injury, research shows not only that EU conditionality has limited potential to reverse these negative trends but is actually contributing to making things worse. As argued by some researchers in a recent article, it was established that “the limited impact of the EU’s political conditionality in the Western Balkans with rampant state capture […] has effectively contributed to the consolidation of such detrimental governance patterns.” The argument put forward is that the way conditionality currently works, it actually enables clientelist networks comprised of business and politics by insisting on both economic and political reforms. Furthermore, being a top-down process, it also weakens political competition and accountability of the executive within accession countries. Lastly, conditionality legitimizes corrupt national elites through high-level interactions with the EU and member state’s officials, the case in point being recent visits by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen to Serbia, just two weeks apart.
The recent change in the enlargement methodology adopted by the EU — although arguably a third, important revision of this process over the last decade — will most likely fall short on its promises once again. The key novelty is the so-called cluster approach, where the most important issues around the rule of law are grouped under Cluster I and it should, at least on paper, provide a better link between political criteria, quality of democracy, and the technical reforms that are being undertaken. For the citizens of the Western Balkans, the only hope is that this new approach will work and that democracy, no matter how severely under attack and undermined, will prevail.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely the author's and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ISPI and BCSP.