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Balkan corruption

January 25, 2017

The principles of judicial independence, the fight against corruption and respect for the rule of law are popular themes in political speeches in the Balkans. However, reality is something altogether different.

Rumänien Bukarest Proteste gegen Regierung
Image: Getty Images/AFP/D. Mihailescu

When Klaus Iohannis surprised many by winning the Romanian presidential election at the end of 2014, fighting corruption and old networks were among his most important priorities. At the time, there was an almost euphoric mood among his supporters; people spoke of a new era in Romania.

Some two years later, it seems that the old days are back: The newly elected social-liberal government, headed by the Social Democratic Party (PSD), is currently in the process of relaxing existing anti-corruption laws. The government wants to change laws barring those with criminal records from government positions, as well as granting immunity to government officials charged with abuse of office if resulting damages total less than 50,000 euros ($54,000). Further, the government wants to grant amnesty to a number of party and business associates currently residing in Romanian jails, and to release them immediately. Hundreds of politicians and state officials convicted of corruption are among the 2,500 prisoners affected.    

The plan behind the move: Provide a path back into power for PSD Party Chairman Liviu Dragnea. Dragnea was given a two-year suspended sentence for massive election fraud related to a referendum against former President Traian Basescu. He is also currently standing trial for abuse of office. The reforms proposed by the government would nullify his probation and end his trial. With that, Dragnea's criminal record would be expunged and he would be able to assert his right the post of prime minister.

Rumänien Proteste in Bukarest
Mass protests erupted in the Romanian capital, Bucharest, after plans were leaked to grant pardons to convicted politiciansImage: Reuters/Inquam Photos/O. Ganea

Open power struggle

On the weekend, tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Bucharest and other cities across Romania to protest the plan. "We don't want all of those politicians, convicted of corruption and other crimes, to go free," says journalist Christian Stefanescu, who took part in the protests. "We don't want them to be given any presents."

Protesters received support from the highest levels of power: Romanian President Klaus Iohannes also participated in the protest, criticizing the government's plan in a speech. Doing so saw him immediately accused of "starting a rebellion." That is how PDS Chair Liviu Dragnea characterized the president's participation, possibly charting a course for Iohannes' removal from office. Iohannes countered by announcing that he wanted to hold a referendum on the government's amnesty plan. Now a very public power struggle is being carried out in Romania.

Rumänien Liviu Dragnea
Romania's PSD party chairman, Liviu Dragnea, is hoping loosened anti-corruption laws can bring him back to powerImage: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Ghement

Croatia and Macedonia

Unlike Romania, Croatia often appears as a toothless tiger when it comes to fighting corruption. Although charges have been brought against a number of politicians, managers and soccer functionaries over the last several years, rarely have any been sent to jail.

The fight in Macedonia is even more absurd. For years the country has been at the bottom of Transparency International's corruption perceptions index. This year, the only Western Balkan country that received a lower rating from the NGO was Kosovo. Bribery, at every level, is simply part of everyday life in Macedonia.

Infografik Karte Korruptionsindex ENG

Only the country's special prosecutor's office, created under pressure from the USA and the EU, has brought forth criminal cases: 11 in all. To date, not one of them has gone before a judge. "The fact that corruption is not being fought at the top simply encourages it in everyday life. Macedonian institutions charged with fighting corruption just don't work," as Misa Popovic of the Skopje-based Institute for Democracy (IDSCS) told DW. Popovic says, "Macedonia is being held prisoner. It is a country in which most institutions are only there to serve the interests of the governing party and the ruling political elite."

That assessment seems to correlate with public opinion: According to a 2016 study, ministers, party leaders and parliamentarians were considered to be the most corrupt professionals in the country. Citizens also expect little help from the justice system - for the study showed that judges and police were also thought to be just as corrupt. 

Head shot of a man (Zoran Arbutina) with gray hair and a beard
Zoran Arbutina Editor, writer, reporter