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Balkans: Countries Step Up Fight Against Corruption, Pledge Better Cooperation

By Eugene Tomiuc

A regional anticorruption office began work in Sarajevo this week to help fight corruption in the Balkans. The office, which was opened within the framework of the Balkan Stability Pact, will focus on training judges, prosecutors, and police officers, and developing anticorruption legislation throughout the region. Justice ministers from the Stability Pact member countries also pledged, in a document called the Sarajevo Declaration, to bring their national policies on fighting organized crime in line with the UN Convention on Transnational Organized Crime.

Prague, 29 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The EU-funded Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe this week opened a regional anticorruption office in Sarajevo to coordinate the fight against widespread corruption in the Balkan countries.

The office will be active within the Stability Pact's Anticorruption Initiative (SPAI), which coordinates national and regional efforts against corruption. The office, funded jointly by the Stability Pact, the United States, Germany, and Netherlands, was inaugurated by Stability Pact coordinator Erhard Busek on 27 October.

Busek told RFE/RL that the office will initially focus on training law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and judges as well as improving and strengthening anticorruption legislation. But he said the office will also contribute to increasing public awareness about the gravity of corruption in the region.

"[The office is necessary in order] to push the countries of the region to develop national action plans, also to develop a legislation which is looking for this and also to report and to create a certain kind of public [awareness], [to ensure] that there is more public awareness [concerning] corruption fighting," Busek said.

Corruption, along with organized crime, has long been seen as one of the main problems in the Balkans. The global corruption watchdog Transparency International ranks the eight member countries of the Stability Pact (Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Moldova, Romania, and Serbia-Montenegro) among the most corrupt in Europe. According to Transparency's "Corruption Perceptions Index 2003," released on 7 October, Serbia-Montenegro and Macedonia share 106th place with countries such as Sudan, Ukraine, and Zimbabwe, out of a total of 133. Moldova and Albania rank 100th and 92nd respectively, while Romania and Bosnia come in at 83rd and 70th. Best-positioned in the Balkans are Bulgaria, in 50th place, and Croatia in 59th.

Stability Pact coordinator Busek told RFE/RL that corruption in the Balkans has also been connected with terrorism. He said it has reached such huge proportions that a regional approach is needed to fight it. "Corruption, I think, is one of the things in the region which [has] great importance," he said. "Because of this, not only [the] political system [is] not working very well, but also, a lot of money is collected, even for terrorism."

He continued: "Therefore, it's quite necessary to develop a regional strategy on the subject and to bring it to a kind [of] regional ownership. That means that the region is taking responsibility, that we are not only advising from outside but that [the countries of the region] are doing the job themselves."

Busek said that throughout the Balkans, corruption stems from different causes, such as the transition from totalitarianism, the slow pace of democratic reforms and even war. But he told RFE/RL that while its underlying causes can be different, corruption can bring equal harm to the entire region.

"I think one of the roots [of corruption in the Balkans] is the transformation of society. Transformation, and making lots of changes, is always a temptation for corruption. There's a special case concerning former Yugoslavia, because sanctions created a lot of corruption, I think, [among the consumers as well], to go around and to bring some goods in -- that's a special case, but concerning the political system in general, I think [corruption] is endangering the situation in every country," Busek said.

One of the stated objectives of the newly established anticorruption office is to help the restructuring of the judicial systems throughout the region and to train new police officers, prosecutors, and judges. Busek said that is necessary to clean legal systems of cronyism and corruption. He also said improved cooperation between law enforcement and the judiciaries of the Balkan countries is paramount in the face of cross-border crime.

"I think one of the problems which we're supposed to focus [on] is that the court system is often connected with 'old boys' networks. I think it's easy to change a government, but it's quite difficult to change all the judges and prosecutors. Therefore, we are looking for closer cooperation on this subject, mainly between prosecutors [from different countries]. Because crime is crossing over borders, therefore, the connection with the prosecutors has also to be done over borders," Busek said.

Justice ministers and officials from the Stability Pact member countries, who participated in the opening of the office, also issued a joint statement on 28 October called the Sarajevo Declaration. The statement committed governments to develop national and regional strategies against organized crime and to bring their anticrime mechanisms in line with the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime.

The UN convention, also known as the Palermo Convention, was signed in 2000 and entered into force in September. It provides for governments to amend their national legislation to criminalize offenses committed by organized crime groups, including corruption, obstruction of justice, and money laundering.

The Balkan governments pledged in the declaration to fight against money laundering, to sign bilateral extradition agreements, to initiate witness-protection programs, and to ensure adequate data protection.

Busek said that while the Sarajevo Declaration is an important step, it must be followed by proper implementation. "I think the document, the so-called Palermo document, [is] very important, because it has some binding obligations," he said. "We have been looking forward not only to the declaration being signed, but that it will also be implemented."

He said some of the member countries "have the feeling that if you have signed [a declaration], the job is done. The job is not yet done, the job is [just] beginning with the signing, because afterwards, the implementation is quite necessary."

Busek also warned that, for the Balkans, fighting organized crime and corruption is more than a judicial necessity. "It is an image issue, directly linked to attracting [much-needed foreign] investment," he concluded.