PODGORICA, Montenegro — When Commissioner Johannes Hahn announced Tuesday that Western Balkans countries were making “good progress” toward joining the EU, one could be forgiven for wondering if he was indeed talking about the same region we both grew up in.
Presenting the EUs 2018 enlargement package and six reports on individual Western Balkan countries, the Commissioner celebrated the blocs enlargement process for “modernizing the regions economies and societies, making it gradually a more prosperous and stable place.”
The commissioner and his colleagues should have paused to consider how their long, loving embrace of the Balkans is actually smothering our hopes of EU membership.
Dangle the EU carrot by all means, but a reluctance to throw sticks and stones is leading to unrealistic expectations. Should the Commission continue to only praise and promise, there will be a fierce Balkan backlash against the bloc when EU national governments suddenly balk at the prospect of absorbing states rife with corruption and organized crime.
Montenegro, tipped to be the next EU member, is a great example of how the enlargement policy is failing. On Sunday, Milo Ðukanović won his seventh national election to become president of the Balkans smallest country.
EU praise for Ðukanović has helped their man in Montenegros outstanding electoral success.
Throughout more than 25 years of Ðukanovićs rule, Brussels policy has been one of unconditional support, bolstering his pro-Western government in an effort to keep Russia away from a Mediterranean coastline. Violence against journalists, rampant corruption and a string of gangland killings have elicited only the occasional gentle chide.
In Tuesdays Commission report, for example, organized crime was dealt with like this: “there is an initial track record of prosecutions in the fight against smuggling of migrants and against drug trafficking. However, further results are needed to produce a convincing track record, in particular in the fight against money laundering and trafficking in human beings.”
The authors must have missed the gangland war blazing across the country. They failed to mention mobs clashing over control of lucrative cocaine smuggling routes and a series of high-profile mafia-style hits. According to the Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (KRIK) and Radio Free Europe, 28 out of 35 gang-related murders since 2012 remain unsolved.
Public perception of the Special State Prosecutors Office in this field mirrors its dismal results. In a survey conducted in November, 56 percent of Montenegrins said they did not believe that the Special State Prosecutor had contributed to the fight against corruption and organized crime.
The same survey found deep distrust of the governments anticorruption agency, with 44 percent of respondents believing it treats officials differently depending on their political affiliation. More than half said they think the agency has had no impact on the fight against corruption.
All too often, Brussels has accepted Balkan statistics and assertions without question.
EU praise for Ðukanović has helped their man in Montenegros outstanding electoral success. His fortunes have thrived, while those of his country have lagged behind. Despite holding public functions all his life, his estimated worth is $14.7 million, according to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. By contrast, the average Montenegrin monthly salary is €511.
Montenegro began the accession process six years ago, starting to reform laws and regulations in line with EU standards. Yet today they remain largely unenforced. This is because the political power of Ðukanović and his Democratic Party of Socialists relies on their control of state resources and the money flowing out of them.
In a study conducted by Inform, an EU-funded research project, almost a quarter of the Montenegrin respondents admitted accepting bribes in exchange for their vote.
Perhaps the best example of government malfeasance is a scandal from 2013. The daily newspaper Dan published transcripts of leaked recordings, with party officials discussing giving out state jobs in exchange for votes. None of the officials suffered. On the contrary, in 2017 one of those implicated was appointed to a senior role in the state auditors office.
In theory, these shortcomings should be addressed during the EU accession process. But all too often, Brussels has accepted Balkan statistics and assertions without question.
Thats a big mistake. Earlier this year, the Montenegrin government submitted a report to the European Commission highlighting a disciplinary case it claimed had been opened against a state prosecutor. But the High Prosecutorial Council, which would direct such a proceeding, had never heard of the case. In 2016 the government reported that 300 anti-corruption cases had been abandoned since 2009. By 2017 this number had mysteriously dropped to just 80, with no explanation.
As long as Brussels turns a blind eye, theres no incentive for Balkan governments to make meaningful progress on the membership criteria. In Montenegro, Ðukanović has thrived by making mostly cosmetic changes. He has little incentive to do more. Actually, taking his country into the bloc would mean an end to his monopoly on money and power.
If Montenegro is to fulfill ambitions to join by 2025 and set a precedent for the others, the EUs Balkan love needs to get a lot tougher. Now that the country has joined NATO, Brussels can afford to give it a reality check. Russian ships have never been less likely to appear off the countrys sun-swept beaches.
Stevo Muk is president of the governing board of Institute Alternative, a Montenegrin NGO, and Srdjan Cvijic is a senior policy analyst at the Open Society European Policy Institute in Brussels.