Since the 1990s, Southeastern European countries have made significant progress in bringing stability and transparency to the unrest after the breakup of Yugoslavia. Not all progress has been equal, and in some countries progress is reversing. The general theme based on news and reports over the past few years is that corruption continues to be a problem in the region despite progress on other fronts. Note that corruption does not only affect the government of a country, but also other aspects, such as media freedom, judicial independence, and financial sectors.
Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index released its 2021 report in January. The report sheds light on the progress made around the world in terms of corruption, taking into account various factors such as the perception of institutions, trust in institutions, public sector corruption and “assessments by national experts or ‘businessmen’ as indicated in the methodology of the report. Countries with higher scores are the best performing countries. In the 2021 report, Slovenia scored the highest against its neighboring countries with a score of 57, having dropped three points since last year. This is partly due to growing media restrictions and diminished trust in these institutions under Prime Minister Janez Jansa. The lowest rated countries are Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania, both 35. These countries have experienced corruption scandals over the years, and little has been done to hold individuals accountable.
For example, in Bosnia, Balkan Insight reports that former minister Sadik Ahmetovic admitted paying around €9,000 to not serve a six-month prison sentence for abuse of power. In Albania, an environment minister was arrested for “abuse of position, corruption and money laundering for an incinerator concession contract”, according to the Associated Press. In Serbia, RFE/RL explains that there has been “preferential treatment of media favorable to [President Aleksandar Vucic’s] Strategies [and] Mainly state-owned Telekom Srbija is buying up media and cable companies. These are not all the problems in these countries and in the region, but they largely highlight ongoing trends indicating that acts of corruption have not been fully addressed.
The report’s findings are noteworthy given that countries like Serbia, Bosnia and Albania aspire to join the European Union (EU). This does not mean that joining the union will solve these problems. EU countries such as Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia and Slovenia also face issues of media freedom, corruption and judicial independence. While these developments have become more recent, such as in Slovenia, other countries, such as Bulgaria and Romania, dealt with corruption issues before becoming EU members. Another thing to note is the responsiveness in the fight against corruption in these countries. This is a major challenge in Bosnia, given the country’s political structures and strong nationalist tendencies between different groups. Country leaders may also be quick to tackle corruption regarding political opponents, but remain silent about their party or close group of associates. These trends partly explain why progress in the fight against corruption has been slow.
There have been repeated calls from the United States and western EU countries for leaders in southeastern Europe to do more to fight corruption. The report highlights that “levels of corruption are at a standstill around the world [and explains that] human rights and democracy are also under attack [both of which are] crucial in the fight against corruption. These factors also apply to south-eastern Europe, which means that the governments of these countries must do more than denounce these practices where they are. It is also important not to turn anti-corruption measures into political tools used against political rivals, which would further delay meaningful progress. Being more transparent about these efforts will also reassure people about the consequences of these actions. It won’t completely remove corruption from a country, but it can lead to measures to make it harder and more expensive, a step in the right direction.