BY JULIA GABRIEL
Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia are facing critical junctures in their post-communist political development. These four Western Balkan nations, all current EU candidates, have made efforts to adopt whistleblower protection laws, an important step towards curbing corruption in the region. However, these regulations are rarely enforced and have had little impact. If the EU is committed to keeping Balkan authoritarianism in check, it must ensure that candidate countries adequately implement these laws and make efforts to encourage whistleblowing.
Despite having made positive steps towards EU accession, these four candidate countries are still plagued by pervasive corruption and captured political systems. Just this year, Freedom House reported that democracy in the Balkans has declined for six years in a row, in contrast to the region’s steady increase in democracy scores from 2004 to 2010. The Balkan sub-region’s average democracy score is now the exact same as it was in 2004.  This regression parallels similar developments in other formerly communist countries in Eurasia, and illuminates a pervasive trend of democratic backsliding. More specifically, analysts have criticized the leaders of Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro for exploiting the EU’s volatility, “trusting that its longing for stability will outweigh clear evidence of individual politicians and parties capturing the state to promote their own interests”.  As the future of the EU becomes increasingly uncertain, Balkan leaders are more inclined than ever to push the limits of their authority while still vying for EU acceptance. If the downward trajectory of the past six years continues, this generation of Western Balkans rulers could potentially reverse the region’s democratic progress.
Setting aside their breach of EU standards, Western Balkan leaders have successfully established positive relationships with many key stakeholders in Western Europe and the United States, further complicating the region’s political situation. In his article “The Budding Autocrats of the Balkans”, Besnik Pula argues that “A new generation of autocrats” has emerged as leaders in the Balkan states. “These autocrats operate under a different, savvier playbook than those of the 1990s. Internationally, they enthusiastically embrace the EU in their foreign policy”, Pula explains. “They are well-coached in telling Western diplomats what they want to hear, while blatantly undermining democratic principles and the rule of law at home.”  For instance, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić implemented many of the Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (GRECO)’s policy recommendations, but these efforts largely targeted his adversaries.  EU officials praised Vučić for arresting dozens of Serbian officials accused of corruption, despite the fact that most of those officials were members of opposition parties and their arrests subsequently bolstered Vučić’s authority. This veneer cripples Serbian democratization, though Serbia and the other Western Balkan candidate countries are still able to claim that their governments are making progress towards EU accession. Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia have all made superficial efforts to fight corruption and decrease authoritarianism. In reality, these facades merely improve their leaders’ international reputations without helping the lives of everyday citizens.
Under present circumstances, these countries must explore alternative ways to meet EU accession criteria. One of the most effective ways to curb corruption and weaken authoritarian regimes is by encouraging whistleblowing. In situations where bribery and corruption are prevalent in private and public sectors, individuals must feel safe to report offenses they may witness. Successful whistleblowing often requires two main conditions: effective safeguarding legislation and widespread public education.  As Agnes Batory explains, “whistleblower protection can also be considered as a way of influencing the cost–benefit calculus of individuals (whether public officials or ordinary citizens), to report corruption-related crimes[…] Rather than imposing a duty to report and punishing offenders, it tries to remove, or at least ameliorate, the negative consequences that would otherwise likely follow the decision to speak out”.  For many potential whistleblowers, the choice to report corruption is not just one of morals or conviction. Whistleblowers often risk their careers, reputations, and even lives in order to expose wrongdoings, and it is up to legislators to make sure these individuals are protected.
For EU candidate countries, enacting whistleblower protection laws is a tangible step towards decreasing corruption, thus helping those countries meet EU accession criteria. Chapter 23 of the EU Acquis states, “Member States must fight corruption effectively, as it represents a threat to the stability of democratic institutions and the rule of law. A solid legal framework and reliable institutions are required to underpin a coherent policy of prevention and deterrence of corruption”.  The EU recognizes whistleblower protection as a key element of this deterrence. In their yearly assessments of candidate countries, EU officials take note of whether or not the country has passed whistleblower protection laws. Because of this, all four Western Balkan candidates have attempted to improve their whistleblower protection legislation, but these laws alone have yet to create any meaningful culture change. In situations where whistleblower legislation has been passed, but not enforced, corruption can easily go unchecked.
In the European Commission’s 2016 reports on all four Western Balkan candidate countries, they acknowledge progress in the realm of whistleblower protection. Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia have all passed rudimentary whistleblower protection laws in the last two years. Serbia adopted a Whistleblower Protection Act in November 2014, Macedonia in November 2015, Montenegro in December 2015, and Albania in June 2016. Despite these advancements, the EU is still not happy with the region’s progress in decreasing corruption. In Albania, it was noted that “corruption remains prevalent in many areas and continues to be a serious problem”.  The Commission is not yet satisfied with Macedonia’s legislation, concluding that “substantial legal, institutional, and practical preparations are still needed for effective implementation of the law”.  In Serbia, they saw “limited results from the implementation of adopted legislation”, and in Montenegro, not only did the Commission report evidence of corruption, but they uncovered one case in which the Anti-Corruption Agency was criticized publicly for their reactive and contentious interpretation of the law.   As these reports illustrate, merely passing whistleblower protection laws is not sufficient. Although the EU reports did not explain whether this shortcoming is specifically the result of a law enforcement failure or lack of public education, it is presumably a combination of the two. Some individuals may argue that laws like this simply need time to create change, but positive change is unlikely to happen on its own considering the political situation in the Western Balkans. Just like the leaders of these countries, the current whistleblower laws may appease EU stakeholders, but they are not doing enough to benefit the lives of citizens domestically.
Given these four countries’ current regimes, it is unlikely that their governments will do much to ensure that whistleblower protection laws are effectively enforced. If the EU wants to prioritize candidate countries’ progress, then the European Commission should ensure that whistleblowers in the Balkans are adequately protected. Unfortunately, this may be a difficult feat, seeing as whistleblower protection is rarely enforced even within EU member states. There are no consistent whistleblower protection laws across member states, and many countries regulate whistleblowing simply through labor, commercial, or criminal law.  This strategy may make sense for individual countries, but it creates confusion when examined holistically. Additionally, EU institutions themselves lack necessary whistleblowing regulations. The European Parliament adopted their first internal whistleblower protection rules in January 2016, but these laws fail to protect MEP assistants- individuals who would be best positioned to expose wrongdoings within the European Parliament.  Luxembourg, the location of the European Parliament General Secretariat, recently faced a whistleblower protection nightmare when Antoine Deltour, the former PwC employee who exposed a massive tax avoidance scheme, received the European Citizen Award in 2015 for his work “promoting European values” in the LuxLeaks scandal.  However, only a few months later, Deltour was found guilty by a court in Luxembourg for those very actions.  If EU institutions expect candidate countries to protect whistleblowers, they should hold their members to the same standards.
Until the Western Balkans have leaders that enforce these regulations, the onus is on the EU to ensure whistleblower protection in candidate countries. As Western Balkan leaders take advantage of EU instability to increase their authority, they will continue to weaken democracy while continuing to seek EU membership. Whistleblower protection laws are a key way to expose corruption in these regimes, but only if they are actually enforced. In order to ensure optimum EU expansion, EU authorities must hold member states and candidates alike to the highest standards of whistleblower protection.
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About the Author
Julia Gabriel studies International Leadership and World Politics at Vanderbilt University. Her research interests include democratization and anti-corruption efforts in Eastern Europe and former Soviet countries.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.