Back to Basics: Re-affirming the Rule of Law in the Western Balkans

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This paper urges decision makers in Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, as well as civil society and regional organizations committed to the EU integration of the Western Balkans countries and EU institutions to address the shortcomings of the EU-related efforts of these countries to this point and the overall reforms that aim for the democratization of the region.

Evidence shows that progress in democracy and rule of law reforms in the region, albeit different across countries, is slow. Even when it has been achieved, progress has generally been more technical rather than directly focusing on politically sensitive issues. In all three countries, it is particularly worrisome that issues, which should come first on the Governments’ agendas, come last. In other words, there is continuous trend of stagnation or backsliding in fundamental rights, and this has especially been reflected in deteriorating media freedom and the violation of human rights by police officers and other official institutions.

Progress in the efficiency of the judiciary can be commended, but there is no significant progress regarding its independence. Special prosecutions set up in Macedonia and Montenegro, although demonstrating a degree of independence, face obstructions from other institutions and face intense political pressures. The track record for fighting organized crime and corruption in Serbia and Montenegro is still not reflected in the final convictions of high profile cases.

In all countries, cooperation between the Government and civil society regressed, as demonstrated by smear campaigns against CSOs. Councils for cooperation between CSOs and the Government in Macedonia and Montenegro are boycotted by civil society representatives. The role of non-governmental actors in EU Accession efforts is downgraded by the lack of access to the key information on the progress made in meeting EU criteria, especially in Montenegro.

There are also more specific converging trends observed among the countries. In Macedonia and Serbia, prioritization of security and bilateral issues tends to overshadow the “fundamentals first” approach of the European Commission and to downplay the importance of the rule of law. Macedonia and Montenegro, on the other hand, have gone through political experiments with the so-called governments of electoral trust, trading off the efforts towards depoliticizing the administration for the priority of addressing the low levels of trust in the elections. Still, the aftermaths of the elections in both countries are marked by the refusal of the opposition to confirm the validity of the election results.

Curbing overarching politicization in the region is a key precondition for a more efficient fight against corruption. The EU, Governments and CSOs should thus avoid technicisation of the EU accession efforts. The EU should persist with its “fundamentals first” approach, with more efficient inclusion of civil society in the process of EU integration. CSOs should continue independent monitoring and evaluation of rule of law efforts and with promoting examples of successful reforms – the so called “agents of reform” across the region, to spur positive peer-pressure among the countries.

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