Western Balkans countries slump on Corruption Perceptions Index

Western Balkans countries slump on Corruption Perceptions Index
By bne IntelliNews February 21, 2018

Four of the six aspiring EU members from the Western Balkans fell multiple places on Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index, with Macedonia — now ranked 16 places below its nearest neighbours — the region’s worst performer. 

The news from the influential corruption watchdog is unfortunate, given the high hopes in capitals across the region of a push towards EU accession following the European Commission’s publication of a new enlargement strategy for the Western Balkans this month. 

Corruption, along with other issues such as poverty and unemployment, is among the key concerns of existing EU member states, especially those who are net contributors to the EU budget. There is a growing divide between enthusiasts for enlargement to the Western Balkans, which are concentrated in Central and Southeast Europe, and the member states from Western Europe who want a more cautious approach. Incomplete anti-corruption reforms in Bulgaria and Romania at the time of their accession, leading to the introduction of the CVM monitoring system for the two countries, has made governments of other EU member states determined to ensure other accession candidates are fully up to scratch in this area before they are allowed to join. 

The need for candidates and would-be candidates from the Western Balkans to make tangible progress in fighting corruption was highlighted in the European Commission report, which said: “First, the rule of law must be strengthened significantly. Today, the countries show clear elements of state capture, including links with organised crime and corruption at all levels of government and administration, as well as a strong entanglement of public and private interests.”

However, the new Transparency International ranking reveals that of the six Western Balkans countries four — Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Macedonia and Serbia — all fell on the index, which ranks 180 countries and territories by their perceived levels of public sector corruption according to experts and businesspeople. It uses a scale of 0 to 100, where 0 is highly corrupt and 100 is very clean. 

In some countries the declines were significant; Macedonia dropped a startling 17 places from 90th on the 2016 index to 107th in 2017. Albania and Bosnia both fell from 83rd place to 91st, while Serbia experienced a more modest decline of five places from 72nd to 77th. Montenegro remained in 64th place. 

The only state from the region to defy this trend was Kosovo, which made a leap from 95th place in 2016 to 85th in 2017. This is most likely a result of the anti-corruption strategy launched by Pristina, which aims to progressively and sustainably reduce corruption, strengthen institutional integrity and promote good governance. It also includes fight against illegal financing of political parties and terrorism, the informal economy, money laundering, and financial crimes.

Macedonia’s dramatic decline occurred during a year when official corruption was very much in the headlines. The ousting of the conservative VMRO-DPMNE, which had ruled the country for more than a decade, came after high-level corruption was revealed in illegally taped conversations among top government officials including former prime minister Nikola Gruevski. These were the impetus for the Colourful Revolution protests in Skopje. 

Another factor was the crackdown on NGOs launched in late 2016 and early 2017 under VMRO, after Gruevski accused the civil sector of destabilising the country. The Transparency International report showed that corruption in countries where NGOs and are least protected is high, which is the case in Macedonia.

Gruevski made the accusation when he was fighting for his political life after VMRO scored a narrow victory in the December 2016 general election but was unable to form a government, eventually handing over the reins of power to the Social Democrats. 

Gruevski said after the election that his party would try to strengthen the civil sector and fight against civil associations allegedly connected to the business magnate George Soros, who he accused of financing the opposition, including the Colourful Revolution protests. In January 2017 three Macedonian journalists established a civil organization dubbed “Stop Operation Soros” to work against the Soros-funded Open Society Foundations (OSF). Many NGOs complained after Gruevski’s announcement that financial and other check-ups by the authorities had been more frequent, which made it difficult for them to work.

As in Macedonia, perceived corruption was likely increased in Bosnia by high-level corruption cases. Developments during 2017 included the indictments of former interior minister Alija Delimustafic and 37 others accused of illegally registering and reselling the property of dead people between 2009 and 2016, garnering BAM10mn (€5.1mn) from their efforts. 

A survey published in September showed that most people in Bosnia have an alarmingly low level of trust in public institutions, including the police, health system, judiciary, parliament, media and even in NGOs. In the survey, 70% of respondents said they do not trust the parliament, while 65% said the same about the prosecution and 64% about the judiciary.

Corruption and organised crime remain at the heart of political debate in Albania, where government and opposition politicians repeatedly level accusations about the alleged criminal links of their opponents. The launch of various anti-corruption campaigns and wide-reaching judicial reforms, as well as the eradication of large-scale cannabis cultivation under Prime Minister Edi Rama, as he aims to advance the country on its EU accession path, do not appear to have had much impact on public perceptions. 

They are likely outweighed in voters’ minds by ugly scandals like the revelations of links between interior minister Saimir Tahiri, who resigned in 2017, and drug traffickers. Tahiri’s name was mentioned in a series of wiretapped recordings revealed by Italian media in October, and the opposition quickly capitalised on the ruling Socialists’ delay in condemning the former minister. 

But while perceived corruption increased in most of the aspiring EU members, the situation also worsened within the bloc and elsewhere in the world. This year’s Corruption Perceptions Index highlights that the majority of countries are making little or no progress in ending corruption. On the 2017 index more than two-thirds of countries scored below 50, with an average score of 43.

“In 2017, authoritarianism rose across Eastern and South East Europe, hindering anti-corruption efforts and threatening civil liberties. Across the region, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and independent media experienced challenges in their ability to monitor and criticise decision-makers,” said Transparency International. 

Macedonia was not alone in its clampdown on NGOs; the report details similar measures taken in Hungary, Poland and Romania.

While Bulgaria has been desperate to show good results in its fight against corruption, it remained the worst performer on the index from the EU countries in 71st place, despite Hungary’s nine-point collapse to 66th place. Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov's government passed several legislative changes in 2017, aiming to persuade the EU it has made serious progress in the fight against corruption. However, all the changes were fiercely opposed by magistrates and politicians. In its report on Bulgaria in January 2017, the European Commission once again noted that the country had failed to make any significant progress in the battle against graft in the past 10 years.

Both Bulgaria and Hungary are now ranked below Montenegro, where despite being the leader among the Western Balkans states high-level corruption remains cause for concern. “Veteran strongman Milo Djukanovic, voted the Organized Crime and Corruption Project’s 2015 person of the year, still haunts Montenegrin politics and represents a major obstacle to the far-reaching reforms that will be needed,” bne IntelliNews columnist Henry Stanek wrote recently. Djukanovic is widely expected to run for — and win back — the Montenegrin presidency in the April election. 

Even among the best performers from squeaky clean Scandinavia there were some setbacks. Finland’s score dropped by four points, which Transparency International speculates could be attributed to indistinct borders between public and private interests. 


Corruption Perception Index 2017

Rank 2017

Rank 2016













Bosnia & Herzegovina