Ending state capture in the Balkans – bridging the gap between EU words and deeds

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Hashim Thaci, President of Kosovo (L), Federica Mogherini, EU's diplomacy chief, and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, during a Belgrade-Pristina EU-facilitated dialogue in June 2017 . [flickr/EEAS]

The EU is still failing to address the issue of state capture in the Balkans and, by choosing stability over democracy in the region, has been undermining its own credibility and values. But now it must take strong actions in view of the 2025 admission perspective, writes Shpend Ahmeti.

Shpend Ahmeti is the mayor of Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. He was the leader of the New Spirit Party which merged in 2011 with the Movement for Self-Determination, where Ahmeti served as vice chairman before leaving the party in 2018. Ahmeti lectured on public policy at the American University in Kosovo and also worked for the World Bank for a number of years.

“Today, the Western Balkans countries show clear elements of state capture.” With this sentence from its new enlargement strategy adopted on 6 February 6, the European Commission eventually took the courage to put a name on the main problem facing our countries. But it also threw the cat among the pigeons as exceptional situations require exceptional solutions.

According to the World Bank, “state capture occurs when the ruling elite and/or powerful businessmen manipulate policy formation and influence the emerging rules of the game to their own advantage.” State capture is a form of grand corruption characterised by high levels of secrecy, which takes two forms: corporate state capture in which public power is exercised primarily for private gain and party state capture in which parties politicise the state in pursuit of political monopoly.

For years, progressive forces in the Balkans have been ringing the alarm bell that state capture is impeding progress on European integration and threatening the future of the region.

Kosovo and Serbia, in particular, have become showcase examples of captured political systems. Kosovo has long been a captured state in the hands of a ruling elite which has reigned over the country almost without interruption since the first government was established in 2002.

Since returning to government in 2012, Vučić has progressively dismantled any opposition and now exerts total control over Serbia’s centres of power, having effectively built an authoritarian regime. The developments of the last few days have demonstrated the depth of the problem.

On 21 March, the Kosovo Parliament passed a border demarcation deal with Montenegro, signed by President Thaçi in 2015 in his former role as foreign minister. The controversial agreement, which caused a huge division in society, was deemed by a special government committee appointed by PM Haradinaj to hand over 8,200 hectares of territory to Podgorica.

The vote passed with exactly the 80 votes needed, with tear gas in Parliament, and only thanks to an MP from the “Serbian List”, a party created by Vučić in the framework of the EU-facilitated Kosov-Serbia dialogue that is now monopolising Kosovo Serbs’ political representation.

The passing of the deal saved Thaçi from potential legal consequences while allowing Kosovo to meet one of the last EU conditions for a Schengen visa liberalisation.

In the days that followed, Thaçi and Vučić allegedly held a secret meeting in the US followed by an official one in Brussels to move on with another contentious EU conditionality, the creation of the Association of Serb Municipalities (ASM) in Kosovo, agreed upon in 2013 as part of the EU-facilitated dialogue.

Given that the ASM was deemed unconstitutional by Kosovo’s Constitutional Court because of its executive powers that would lead to the ‘Bosnisation’ of Kosovo, the tandem are looking for a way to establish it outside the Kosovo constitutional order.

On 26 March, Marko Djurić, the director of the Serbian government’s Kosovo office, was arrested in Northern Mitrovica in a spectacular police operation, brought to Pristina for a walk of shame, and immediately deported to Serbia. In a sign of protest, the Serbian List withdrew from the Kosovo government within 24 hours and announced it would unilaterally establish the ASM by 20 April.

Last Thursday (29 March) saw another unprecedented event observers have qualified as a suspension of the rule of law and of the constitutional order in Kosovo. Six Turkish residents identified by Ankara as supporters of Fethullah Gülen were arrested by the Kosovo Police and handed over to Turkish authorities, with the justification that they were a threat to national security.

All parties condemned the action and PM Haradinaj, who stated he had not been informed of the operation, immediately requested the resignation of the interior minister belonging to a junior coalition party and of the head of the Intelligence Agency, who is close to Thaçi.

The details of the operation and the reasons for the arrests are still unknown to the public. There were no court proceedings in the operation. While it is still unclear who gave the extradition order, Erdoğan’s statements over the weekend leave little room for doubt.

The Turkish president publicly thanked Thaçi for handing over the alleged Gülenists, while condemning Haradinaj’s moves and calling him a puppet politician who will be held to account.

The reasons that have pushed Thaçi to stage the above schemes are unclear, yet they may be linked to the issuance by the Hague based Special Court of its first indictments for wartime and post-war crimes by members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, potentially including himself.

Or something bigger is emerging, like the theme of exchange of territories between Kosovo and Serbia. Or both. The side effect is that Haradinaj is now heading a minority government following the departure of the Serbian List and risks further erosion of his numbers in case the interior minister’s party decides to leave the government.

Brussels’ favourite autocrats, Thaçi and Vučić, know too well the EU’s incapability to address such volatile situations and its tolerance of their authoritarian rule as long as political stability is guaranteed.

They have consistently used the strategy of the pyromaniac fireman to remain at the centre of the chessboard, particularly through the EU facilitated dialogue. In the near future, the tandem will likely try to hijack the new EU enlargement strategy and related initiatives on security, migration and reconciliation to impose themselves as key stability factors in the region.

Despite billions of euros spent, EU support to the Balkans has so far failed to address the systemic issues of state capture and match words with deeds, as is the case with the failure of the EU Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX) to try high-profile criminality cases which were eventually put back in the hands of captured local courts.

Worse still, the EU has been undermining its credibility and compromising with its values by choosing stability over democracy.

Addressing state capture and systemic threats to the rule of law, one of the main values upon which the Union is based, is clearly the most pressing issue in the Balkans.

Given that local safeguard mechanisms have been captured and are incapable to address those threats, the only remedies left are international pressure and building domestic consensus on ending state capture. For the EU, this means re-examining its approach and considering new ways to strengthen its capacity for societal change in the region.

The question remains, however, whether this is too heavy a lift for the EU which has accustomed us to pragmatic solutions based on short-term geostrategic interests rather than values and principles.

With the 2025 enlargement perspective offered to the Western Balkans, as well as illiberal democracy and Euroscepticism rising in several parts of the Union, the EU cannot afford to do business as usual.

It needs to live up to the challenge and take strong actions to end state capture in its future member states, including through its flagship initiative on the rule of law, which must become the cornerstone of enlargement policy and the upcoming initiative to strengthen the enforcement of the rule of law in the EU.

This means distancing itself from the captors and supporting democratising forces of the society beyond the executive, as key conditions to re-establishing checks and balances and ending state capture. The credibility of the Union and, more importantly, its very own future, are at stake.

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