Politicised institutions are key obstacle to fighting corruption in Montenegro

Montenegro has on the face of it made good progress in adopting anti-corruption laws, but frequent political scandals suggest they are not being implemented. Jovana Marović, Executive Director of the Politikon Network, a think tank based in Podgorica, and a member of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG), argues that – in the absence of effective law enforcement – public officials and politicians feel they can act with impunity.

Any evaluation of Montenegro’s anti-corruption efforts to date should start with the changes in the law. A whole set of new legal solutions saw the light of day under the auspices of the European Union’s conditionality policy and the country’s aspiration to get closer to this supranational community. However, more than seven years after the start of accession negotiations and with the membership perspective still uncertain, Montenegrin institutions have stopped even simulating reforms. The new legal solutions have produced no significant results, and some laws have even been changed for the worse.

The most recent example is announced amendments to the law on free access to information which introduce the so-called abuse of the right of access to information. The proposed provision allows an institution to deny an interested party’s request and refuse to make a document or information available on the grounds that the request is “unfounded or unreasonable”. The proposed changes also introduce the possibility for institutions to determine whether or not information is of public importance, and accordingly whether or not it is necessary to publish it. If these amendments pass, it will not only (again) call into question the country’s commitment to reform, but will also spoil civil society’s efforts to control the government and help combat corruption.

Montenegro still lacks a proper strategic framework for the fight against corruption. The Chapter 23 (Judiciary and Fundamental Rights) Action Plan, which also includes anti-corruption measures as the only framework that exists at the national level, is out-dated, only having been updated once (in 2015) since the beginning of the accession negotiations in 2012. The reason given for such inactivity and apathy is that “the European Union does not seek an update”. At the local level, there are a number of anti-corruption plans, but no satisfactory monitoring and evaluation tools or efforts.

This year has seen two scandals emerging, nicknamed “envelope” and “flats“. The envelope scandal concerns illegal financing of the ruling party, evidenced in a leaked video clip of a local tycoon handing over an envelope with 97500 euros to the then-mayor of the capital, Podgorica, for campaign purposes ahead of the 2016 parliamentary elections. The flats scandal relates to loans for apartments, granted on extremely favourable terms, to members of the government and other officials of the ruling Democratic Party of Socialist (DPS). Some did not even declare the benefit to the competent anti-corruption agency in their asset declarations, but where they did, scrutiny is limited owing to the weakness of the the Agency for the Prevention of Corruption, which is characterised by politicized statements, inactivity, and selective control.

These follow the “audio recordings” affair from 2012, to which the reactions of the authorities so far have not been encouraging. Transcripts of leaked audiotapes from a meeting of the ruling party’s Council were published in 2012 and appeared to reveal a strategy of “buying” voters with a variety of benefits, but primarily with jobs in the public administration. The audio recordings affair has not led to proper investigations, and is simply referred to as the “one employee: four votes” anecdote. It seems that the same fate awaits the aforementioned two: notwithstanding the European Commission’s repeated urging to resolve these issues, in its annual reports, there has been no proper response by the institutions. Given such inaction by state authorities, it is no wonder that more than half of Montenegrin citizens believe that they are not equal before the law.

My own experience working within the Government of Electoral Trust (a kind of experiment before the 2016 parliamentary election which appointed Opposition representatives to the Government) shows that a sense of impunity makes public officials feel protected, comforted by the belief that they own the system. Scandals remain unresolved and their protagonists rewarded. The main character in the audio recordings affair was promoted from Member of Parliament to member of the Senate of the State Audit Institution, supposedly a key institutional guardian of integrity.

As can be seen from recent events, the key obstacle to fighting corruption in Montenegro is the politicized institutions. They do not consistently implement regulations, so that even the best laws do not produce results in practice. Besides, following the European Council’s decision not to open accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, the future dynamics of integration remain unclear; this might further slow down anti-corruption efforts. Political elites in the Western Balkans are interested in pursuing reforms only as long as they entail financial rewards and a secure perspective of EU membership.

Action is needed in two areas. First, the Government should demonstrate real commitment to reforms by allowing an open discussion on key issues, a constructive dialogue with the opposition and civil society. This would send a message that the Government has nothing to hide, and open the process fully to the public. Second, the government should prioritise effective law enforcement, which would help answer some of the questions raised by the recent scandals.

Sadly, such a turnaround in the politics of the party that has been in power in Montenegro for almost 30 years is currently unimaginable. But this is what it would take to adequately respond to the on-going decline in public confidence in institutions and the EU’s tendency to keep the Western Balkans at a distance.

Given concerns that parliamentary elections scheduled for October 2020 will not be free and fair, the Opposition is calling for a technical/interim government to oversee the public funds. This suggestion deserves consideration. Such a solution could provide for Montenegro a bridge back to the democratization process from which it has so worryingly strayed.

This is the third blog in a series hosted in the run-up to the event New Actors and Strategies for Fighting and Investigating Corruption in the Western Balkans at the Harriman Institute, Columbia University (7-8 November 2019).

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