Strong gains for SEE countries on Corruption Perceptions Index

By bne IntelliNews January 27, 2016

Albania was the standout success in the Southeast Europe region in fighting corruption, rising 22 places on Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index, as almost every country in the region advanced.

A total of eight Southeast European countries improved their positions on the 2015 index, released on January 27, as governments across the region stepped up their fight against corruption, many motivated by the prospect of EU integration. However, the divide between EU member states and aspiring members was clear, with only Bulgaria lagging behind.

The annual index ranks 168 countries worldwide according to perceptions of public sector corruption, with perceived corruption rated on a scale of 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean). Aside from Albania, Montenegro (up 15 places to 61st place) and Romania (up 11 places to 58th), Croatia, Kosovo and Serbia (all up seven places) also substantially improved their rankings.

Albania was ranked the most corrupt country in the SEE region on the 2014 index, along with Kosovo. The substantial improvement in the country’s score followed the launch of Prime Minister Edi Rama’s campaign against the informal economy in September 2015. The fight against corruption, tax evasion and money laundering in all segments of society is a priority for Rama’s government.

Despite the improvement, Albania remained one of the lowest ranked countries in the SEE region, with only Kosovo and Moldova (tied in 103rd place) holding lower positions.

Macedonia (66th place) was the only country from the region to fall on the index. Transparency International singled out Macedonia, along with Hungary, Spain and Turkey, as being among the countries in Europe and Central Asia where a marked deterioration took place.

“These are places where there was once hope for positive change. Now we’re seeing corruption grow, while civil society space and democracy shrinks,” the report said.

At the other end of the scale, Slovenia remained the best performer in the region in 35th place, while fellow EU members Croatia and Romania also advanced.

The improvement in Romania’s score over the past year was visibly driven by the results of the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) in pursuing high-profile corruption cases. The launch of the DNA’s investigation into former prime minister Victor Ponta contributed to his resignation in November. Nonetheless, low-level corruption, particularly in the public administration but also in the poorly financed sectors of health care and education, is still a problem.

Corruption is also an issue in Croatia despite the acceleration of Zagreb’s battle against corruption before it entered the EU in 2013. This resulted in several high-profile cases in 2015: Zagreb mayor Milan Bandic was detained on corruption charges in 2015, while former transport minister Bozidar Kalmeta was charged with bribery and abuse of office. However, the constitutional court annulled earlier corruption convictions for former prime minister Ivo Sanader, citing procedural errors. This raised questions about the country’s judicial system and its success in fighting corruption.

Bulgaria, on a par with Greece, Italy and Romania on last year’s index, now stands alone as the worst performing EU country while its neighbours have advanced. Efforts to address corruption have been patchy. In September, the Bulgarian parliament rejected in its first reading a bill designed to improve the country’s dismal record in fighting corruption. Attempts at judicial reform have also become bogged down because of in-fighting within the ruling coalition.

This lack of progress is likely to be reflected in the European Commission’s Cooperation and Verification Mechanism report on Bulgaria. The report, which measures progress in judicial reform, and fighting corruption and organised crime, is due to be released later on November 27.

Meanwhile, Bulgaria has been overtaken by aspiring members Montenegro and Macedonia, while Serbia and Bosnia & Herzegovina are not far behind.

Montenegro was one of the big movers on this year’s index, indicating that criticism from the European Union for its high levels of corruption, and low number of prosecutions and convictions in corruption cases is having an effect.

The country showed its willingness to tackle high-level corruption with the arrest of the former president of Serbia and Montenegro Svetozar Marovic for suspected abuse of office in December 2015.

However, Brussels is continuing to push for more progress. In January, members of the European Parliament called for pressure to be put on the Montenegrin authorities to start an investigation into First Bank (Prva Banka), which is controlled by prime minister Milo Djukanovic’s brother, over allegations the bank has been involved in money laundering.

In addition to Marovic’s detention in Montenegro, there have been several high profile arrests in both Bosnia (in connection to a probe into suspected drug smuggler Naser Kelmendi), and in Serbia, where 80 people were arrested in several separate cases on December 26.

Serbia managed to claw its way back to 71st place after falling to 78th place in 2014. Successive Serbian governments have been very vocal about their anti-corruption efforts since 2012, when the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) took office. However, the process is slow and there are numerous obstacles, especially concerning the management of state-owned enterprises. The ongoing privatisation and restructuring process as well Serbia’s negotiations to join the EU are expected to significantly reduce corruption in the country.

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