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Corruption Threatens Kosovo’s New Democracy

General Commentary is a regular feature of PA TIMES online and print. If you are interested in writing a piece for either venue, contact Christine McCrehin at [email protected].

Luan Mazreku

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia on February 17, 2008, and thus far 71 countries, including the United States and most European nations, have recognized it as a sovereign state. Irrespective of their ideological leanings, all Kosovo leaders stand firm in their conviction to join the European Union, which they view as a steadfast route to meaningful democratic governance and economic prosperity. Admission into the EU, however, is sanctioned by satisfying the Copenhagen Criteria, which among others, requires countries that they have democratic government institutions, uphold the rule of law, and have a market-based economy. Kosovo government adopted an all-encompassing reform project called FRIDOM (Functional Review and Institutional Design of Ministries) to substantially reform governance whereas the European Union deployed a civil mission in 2008 called EULEX to assist in the area of law enforcement, judiciary, and customs. Despite the efforts of the Kosovo government to reform governance and enforce the rule of law, and the several arrests of public officials by EULEX and the Kosovo police, it is systemic and rampant corruption that undermines the solidifying of democratic institutions at all levels of government. Further, a moribund economy characterized by extremely high-unemployment rates and organized economic crime, severely impede the viability and successful continuity of government reforms.

As a sweeping plan, the FRIDOM project targets eight core areas in dire need of change: human resources, institutional organizing, communication with citizens, public administration management, electronic government, public finance, and anti-corruption policies and legislation. This broad reform seeks to depoliticize public administration, establish a merit-based system in civil service, make government procurement transparent, and develop e-governance. The success of these reforms varies and is subject to only political interpretation because no independent research studies have conducted that would give any validity to the claims of government or opposition leaders. However, the most visible change is the establishment and operation of e-government. In less than two years, the government has managed to install a central portal where citizens can easily access different government ministries, the Parliament, the Office of the Prime Minister, and the Presidency. Albeit an ambitious project that is only in its infancy, access to online government information is particularly difficult, considering that power supply in Kosovo is not stable and citizens experience shortages quite frequently. High poverty rates and poor internet connections further impede access to and interaction with government web sites. A significant number of citizens cannot afford to pay for internet because the unemployment rate goes well over 40%. Internet connection is characteristically poor in rural areas. Despite noteworthy success in e-governance, the systematic engagement of public officials in corruptive practices has remarkably weakened the attainment of government reform goals. Investigations by the Kosovo Anti-Corruption Agency, the Kosovo Police, and EULEX show promising signs that government corruption is under attack.

A report released in late October, 2010 by Transparency International includes Kosovo for the very first time in its Corruption Perceptions Index and shows that Kosovo leads the region as having the most corrupted public institutions. Further, according to the independent Kosovo Anti-Corruption Agency, the number of cases where public officials were charged with corruptive practices has increased by 28 % during the last year, or from 53 cases in 2008 to 68 cases in 2009. Corruption has increased in the courts, local government, and the central government, whereas corruption in other public institutions (e.i., Kosovo Electro-Energy Corporation, Kosovo Privatization Agency, Pristina International Airport, or the Post Telekom of Kosovo) remained the same as in 2008 at 13 criminal corruption cases filed. The charges against these officials range from abuse of official duty, issuance of unlawful judicial decisions, embezzlement, falsification of official documents, and accepting bribes. The EU’s EULEX and the Kosovo police have been central to combating corruption and upholding the rule of law. These entities have launched investigations, made arrests, and convicted several individuals who hold prominent positions in public institutions.

On July 13 of 2010, Ilir Tolaj, a former Permanent Secretary and advisor at Ministry of Health, was arrested on charges of tax evasion. Later, he was released on bail. In late April of this year, EULEX raided the Ministry of Transport and Telecommunication’s building and the house of its minister, Fatmir Limaj, on suspicion of soliciting bribes, money laundering, organized crime, abuse of public office, and fraud in the ministry. The raids caused friction between EULEX and the government led by Hashim Thaci.. Although no charges have been filed against Minister Limaj, an IT administrator of this ministry was arrested on charges of obstruction of justice in late July and the investigation still continues. Nevertheless, while EULEX investigations have yet to result in the arrest and conviction of any of the top politicians, its work into other public institutions has been significantly more aggressive in targeting their leadership.

On July of 2010, the governor of the Kosovo Central Bank, Hashim Rexhepi, was arrested on charges of evading taxes, trading influence, and money laundering. Later, receiving bribes over the issuing of licenses to insurance companies and abuse of official positions were added to Rexhepi’s charges. A Kosovo court convicted former Pristina District Court judge Elez Hoxha for receiving 53, 000 Euros in bribes. This is an enormous amount of money when compared to 2,500 euros, the annual capita income in Kosovo, one of the poorest nations in Europe. While some politicians may tout these police actions in battling corruption as indications of their total success, the report by Transparency International clearly demonstrates that the people of Kosovo have much higher expectations. The very fact that Kosovo leads all its Balkans neighbors in corruption emphasizes the perceived prevalence of the ethical bankruptcy in public institutions.

An intensified and results-based campaign will demonstrate to the citizens of Kosovo that the fight against corruptions is making more than insufficient progress. The success of anti-corruption strategies ultimately rests on the political will of the government to bridge the gap between rhetoric and action by embracing a zero-tolerance policy towards corruption even if corruption exists within government halls. Further, success on combating corruption also depends upon the consciousness of citizens and businesses to refuse to participate in these practices and confidentially expose them to the appropriate institutions.

Sometime within the next few months, Kosovo will go into early elections following the breakup of the government coalition between the Democratic Party of Kosovo led by Hashim Thaci and the Democratic League of Kosovo led by Fatmir Sejdiu. Regardless of the outcome of these elections, the new government must commit itself to raise the bar in terms of pursuing government reforms and fighting corruption at all levels and public institutions. Kosovo’s need to strengthen democratic institutions is essential to avoid becoming a failed state. Ensuring government transparency, uncompromisingly fighting corruption, and indiscriminately upholding the rule of law, and developing a competitive economy are its best bet for EU admission.

Luan Mazreku is a senior fellow at the Kosovo Public Policy Center. Email: [email protected]

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