Reviving the Momentum

8th Global Table Discusses Rule of Law in Southeast Europe


09 Dec 2016 | BMW Foundation | Europe and the Emerging Economies

Unsolved conflicts of the past, an overwhelming bureaucracy, corrupt elites, and poor rule of law: many countries in Southeast Europe are in permanent crisis mode. Hope has always come from the accession prospects to the European Union – but the EU itself has had an identity problem for some time. Southeast Europe urgently needs innovative approaches – and the strength to take control of its destiny.

It's a little bit like the classic movie “Groundhog Day” – except that it's not funny. “Same issues, same people – five years ago, and in five years,” said a slightly disillusioned Peter Grk. The Coordinator for the Western Balkans at the Slovenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs was one of the many regional participants of the 8th BMW Foundation Global Table. A total of twenty-four decision-makers and opinion-leaders from government, business, civil society, and the media met in the hills of Sarajevo to discuss rule of law in Southeast Europe. They came from Macedonia, Georgia, Serbia, Kosovo, but also from India, Brazil, Germany, and other countries.

Discussions and Results

The participants of the 8th BMW Foundation Global Table split into three breakout sessions to discuss what new approaches it takes to enhance rule of law in Southeast Europe. As a result of the discussions, the participants agreed on concrete steps, initiatives, and collaborations, which are now in the process of being implemented. An overview is available here. One project has already been realized: The participants have written a joint letter with recommendations for action to Johannes Hahn, EU Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy & Enlargement Negotiations, and Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President and EU Commissioner in charge of Better Regulation, Interinstitutional Relations, the Rule of Law and the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

The meeting revolved around the question of how the countries of Southeast Europe can overcome the paralyzing standstill: There is no progress on reforms, democracy, and freedom of the press. At worst, things are even moving backwards – as can be seen in Hungary, Poland or Montenegro. In the eyes of Albanian journalist Remzi Lani, there was some movement, but no clear goal. He spoke of a “transitocracy,” a never-ending transition towards democracy.

According to Lani, the entire region was riddled with classic features of fragile states: strong (and frequently justified) public distrust of political decision-makers, a weak opposition, and even weaker government institutions. This makes for a fertile breeding ground for populism and, as is already apparent in many countries in Southeast Europe, a steadily growing nationalist movement that deliberately stirs up hatred against minorities. In an ethnically and religiously diverse region such as the Western Balkans, this is the stuff of future conflicts.

The participants therefore sounded many warnings. Sonja Licht, a veteran civil rights activist and currently president of the NGO Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence, summed it up best. “We are sitting on a ticking time bomb,” she said. It was not just rule of law but basic frameworks for democracy that were put into question: “Looking at the radical developments all over the world, the Western Balkans can become a big security threat for the rest of Europe. We need to do something now,” she said.

This view is shared at the EU level. At the recent presentation of the annual Enlargement Package, EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn pointed out the inefficiency of the Western Balkans, as well as the lack of an independent judiciary in the region. “All enlargement countries,” states the report, “face major structural economic and social challenges, with low efficiency of public administrations and high unemployment rates.” In addition, the weak rule of law also made for a bad investment climate.

This analysis was shared by Global Table participant Goran Svilanović, former Minster of Foreign Affairs of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and now Secretary General of the Sarajevo-based Regional Cooperation Council. The 2016 Balkan Barometer that he brought with him to the meeting in Jahorina held sobering figures: Almost half of those unemployed in Bosnia have given up looking for a job. 73 percent of those surveyed say that their government does not effectively fight corruption. And almost as many people do not trust the judicial system.

The numbers are alarming – and yet they only reflect the everyday reality and experiences of most people in the region. “Rule of law means transforming a society into a state,” said Goran Svilanović. The former politician and his Regional Cooperation Council are now counting on the transformative power of business. The region needs to take control of its destiny. It needs to tap into synergies, dismantle hurdles, and build a good infrastructure, and thus market itself as a whole. For as lone fighters, most Southeast European countries do not have a chance in the global competition.

A good investment climate was characterized above all by reliable rules that apply to all, said entrepreneur Iskren Krusteff. “Rule of law is the first pillar of competitiveness,” he said. The Bulgarian-born Krusteff has lived for a long time in England and Ireland. A first-class education, great career prospects – and yet he and his family returned to Sofia where he founded the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor Bulgaria (GEM), a business index analyzing criteria for a flourishing economy and aiming to promote entrepreneurship in Bulgaria. “In my home country I can contribute much more to positive change than in the UK. You need to be an ambassador for the region you live in,” said Krusteff.

Lack of rule of law is a basic problem

Many economic problems in Southeast Europe can be traced back to one basic problem: lack of rule of law. Global Table participant Lence Ristoska has set out to change this, despite receiving serious threats to her life and safety. She is one of an all-female team of three special anti-corruption prosecutors in Macedonia, a country where women have little say – and certainly do not open criminal cases against corrupt politicians. Or maybe they do. “It’s exhausting, but it’s also fun,” said Lence Ristoska. “Because we know that we fight for truth and justice and that, at the end of the day, we will be on the right side of history.”

The three special prosecutors – who are celebrated as heroes mainly by Macedonia’s youth – have not yet sent anybody to prison. Which is not their fault, but rather due to the lack of cooperation on the part of judges and government representatives. But their work is a start and a signal radiating throughout the entire region. The people support Lence Ristoska and her colleagues, they even take to the streets to demonstrate for them. “In my opinion, without the support of the civil society, we would not be existing,” said Ristoska.

While this may be true, civil society in Southeast Europe is anything but a driving force for change. There is enormous resistance to change on the part of corrupt judges, governments, and bureaucracies. This fuels anger. “We can’t allow corrupt elites to steal EU funds,” said János Kóka, IT entrepreneur and former Minister of Economic Affairs in Hungary. “Corruption is killing innovation and entrepreneurship as well as the values of the European Union.”

EU remains driving force for change

The Western Balkans and the EU: another case of “Groundhog Day.” Many accession candidates feel like the EU is holding out on them, while the EU for its part does not understand why the candidates do not finally do their homework. And yet the European Union continues to be seen as the main driving force for change and democracy. But the momentum seems to have stalled, the European Union is too preoccupied with itself. The people in the Western Balkans have been steamrolled by geopolitical developments, the region currently holds no priority for Europe.

Many Global Table participants took a similar view. “Despite what we do, we are not sure they want us,” said journalist Remzi Lani, summing up the love-hate relationship. While there are many reasons to lose heart, this attitude, the participants agreed, will not move Southeast Europe forward. What is clear is that the region needs to take an active part itself and support its agents of change, of whom Lence Ristoska is only one example.

Reinterpreting the enlargement process

The question can no longer be whether the EU even wants to integrate the countries of Southeast Europe or not. The question is: What can the countries of Southeast Europe contribute to the success of the European Union? “You have to frame the agenda yourself on what you have to offer to the EU,” said Eka Tkeshelashvili, former Deputy Prime Minister and State Minister for Reintegration in Georgia. Moreover, it takes a fresh approach to European integration. “The enlargement process needs to be reinterpreted; it needs to be much more closely tied to economic development,” said Hedvig Morvai, Executive Director of the European Fund for the Balkans, the BMW Foundation’s partner organization for this Global Table.

The meeting in Jahorina, which brought together leaders from government, business, and civil society, could be a start. The participants agreed. “I really hope we’re going to follow up on these outcomes,” said Peter Grk. “If we don’t, it’s a lost opportunity. The Global Table format could be a model to actually push things in the region.” It sounds like a good plan for the next five years.

Text: Maja Heinrich