How to Make Money and Alienate People: COVID-19 and the Rule of Law in the Western Balkans

Alexander Mesarovich, PhD Candidate, University of Edinburgh

Despite renewed focus of the European Union (EU) on the rule of law (ROL) during the accession negotiations of the Western Balkans (WB), part of the “fundamentals first” approach which is supposed to be entrenching the ROL and good governance, the past year has seen a wealth of corruption and graft allegations in the region. While the EU has been distracted managing its own response to COVID and setting up the new European Public Prosecutor’s Office, there has been little bandwidth to attend to this problem. Although the initial decision of the European Commission to ban the export of medical equipment to the region was superseded by a €3.3 billion fund to support the region, the abrogation of “normal” procedures in response to the crisis created opportunities for criminal networks to flourish to the detriment of the countries of the WB. Why has this been the case and what are the impacts on the region, both during the COVID crisis and more generally?

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic states responded with a mixture of lockdowns and stimulus spending to protect their people and economies. However, this unity of purpose was undercut, in some cases, by private initiative not for the greater good but for personal enrichment. The “ventilator” case in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where a local raspberry farming company was contracted to source medical grade ventilators for local hospitals, is emblematic of the negative impacts that such corruption has had during the pandemic. While not all cases were so egregious, there has been a general increase in perception and reporting of corruption across the WB throughout the pandemic.

The threat of COVID-19 was particularly acute in the WB given years of underinvestment in healthcare and the relatively elderly populations. Like elsewhere, governments took a variety of actions including national and local lockdowns, border closures, age-based movement restrictions, and national states of emergency to attempt to contain the spread of COVID. These measures were paired with attempts, limited by the financial situation of the countries in question, to provide some limited fiscal stimulus.

As such, this unique situation provided both challenges and opportunities for criminality. The widespread use of lockdowns and suspensions of “normal” procedures in response to the emergency initially were initially problematic for criminal networks. With an expanded police presence, shuttered border, and reduced economic activity the initial scope for graft or criminality was low. However, criminal organisations adapted to the change and mobilized their extensive business and political connections to profit from pandemic related procurements and to take advantage of individuals whose livelihoods were threatened by the pandemic.

For example, although the region is not alone in seeing an uptick in the use of direct procurement–the UK is a prime example as well–it  is particularly dangerous given the weakness of state institutions. The necessity of speed provided cover for illicit practices in areas like the procurement of vaccines as normal scrutiny measures were suspended, including the suspension of parliament in Serbia. Indeed, under the state of emergency laws all government contracts in Serbia were even declared secret, preventing any reasonable accounting from taking place.

Beyond the obvious impact of wasted and stolen spending, this corruption matters for several reasons. In Croatia, the one country from the WB to join the EU, corruption has a direct correlation with emigration since individuals who do not profit from this system leave the country in large numbers. Unsurprisingly, medical professionals are among those who leave in high numbers to pursue careers in well paid, and well run, Western hospitals rather than continue in the WB. This compounds the shortage already seen in the region, and makes the region even less prepared a future pandemic.

Further, illicit money, either from criminal proceeds like a government protected yet illegal drugs businesses or from graft in government contracts, perverts the economies of the region. Real estate has been booming throughout the pandemic as criminals attempt to launder their money thereby pushing out legitimate financial interests. This has the knock on effect of further entrenching the power of criminals and criminally connected politicians who, in turn, act to stall the EU accession process of the countries to preserve their privileged position in society.

This returns us to the question of why has there been this uptick in corruption during COVID despite the EU’s focus on ROL during accession? The simple answer is that corruption, following Churchill’s adage, does not let a good crisis go to waste. The suspension of normal procedures represented the perfect moment for siphoning off public funds or laundering previous earnings as the EU was distracted with its own internal struggles. While the region, possibly, begins to recover from the pandemic these negative impacts will continue to scar the region for years to come. The emigration of educated and qualified individuals in response to the repeated failures of the state, both before and during the crisis, will, unfortunately, allow those who profit best from chaos, criminals, to flourish to the detriment of the region and the region’s EU aspirations.

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Photo by Ilse on Unsplash

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