Author: Senada Šelo Šabić, Senior Research Associate, Institute for Development and International Relations, Zagreb

The European Committee of the Regions will discuss and likely adopt an opinion entitled Challenges to Local Democracy in the Western Balkans at its plenary session scheduled for October this year. The opinion accurately detects the situation and provides an opportunity to better understand the problems that the citizens of the Western Balkans face in everyday life in their communities. It is important to emphasize here that the opinion also says in the introduction that these problems are not specific only to the countries of the Western Balkans, but the negative phenomena of local government captivity also occur in the EU member states.

It is clear that it is impossible to separate local government from state, but what the good spirit of this opinion should be is the understanding that politics ultimately has its purpose and meaning if it leads to improved living conditions, community harmony and progress of society as a whole. And the results of such a policy are most clearly and fastest seen at the local level. Therefore, understanding the dynamics of government at the local level, both for the EU and for the citizens of the Western Balkans themselves, is necessary to deconstruct and better understand the processes that hinder progress, but also to identify those who support progress and positive change. It is to be hoped that the assessments and messages of this opinion will reach a wider circle of European politicians who shape policies towards the Western Balkans in order to encourage them to “see” citizens in addition to Balkan politicians and support them in the political struggle for democratization and progress of their communities.

The text of the opinion states, among other things, that the European Commission in its relations with the countries of the Western Balkans has traditionally not paid enough attention to issues of local democracy, rule of law and good governance at the local level. There has been little progress, often a downward trend, in the Western Balkans in the areas of anti-corruption, human rights protection, freedom of the media and the judiciary, and a general weakening of the rule of law.

The opinion recalls that local democracy in the Western Balkans faces many challenges, many of which are similar or even identical to those in the EU Member States, but in the Western Balkans they are much more pronounced. There, the problems are exacerbated by many factors that do not exist or are less present in the EU, such as: the legacy of previous armed conflicts; unresolved disputes over sovereignty and territory; lack of freedom of the media; non-recognition of genocide and war crimes; great-power ideas; hate speech; unfinished constitutional solutions; unfulfilled full national equality; insufficient level of good governance and authoritarian tendencies of officials and ruling parties at all levels of government; relatively low level of socio-economic development; mostly negative demographic trends; an underdeveloped civil society with a weak democratic political culture.

Among the challenges to local democracy, the phenomenon of “captivity of local government”, which was pointed out by the European Commission in the Enlargement Strategy for 2018, is especially emphasized, which means a system of local government that is fully or partially usurped by powerful individuals or groups in benefit of their own interests.

The main aspects of local government captivity are also mentioned: unfair and sometimes illegal public procurement; undeserved appointments, employment and promotion of public servants as well as managers and employees of public enterprises; pressure on the judiciary; non-transparent support of local government to civil society organizations; non-transparent work of local government and public administration, which is often associated with control of local media through ownership and advertising and abuse of political parties for personal enrichment and keeping local communities and authorities in a position of “captivity” by building and maintaining patronage networks.

Attention is also drawn to the insufficient level of the rule of law; slow, inefficient, often biased and sometimes corrupt judiciary; widespread and deep-rooted corruption, which many citizens consider normal or even unavoidable, especially in the field of employment at the local level and in relation to health staff and traffic police; still existing ethnically and religiously motivated violent extremism and inadequate legislative and institutional solutions regarding local and regional authorities, including shortcomings in functional and fiscal decentralization.

It is noted that human resources policy is a powerful tool for those who have captured local government, especially where good jobs are rare. Newly employed members of local government as well as employees of local public enterprises are often members of related families or relatives of political or business “friends”; opposition members in the representative bodies, their spouses and close relatives are also involved, and there are even illegal reorganizations of the administration in order to reward loyal individuals for “a job well done”.

Notes with great concern that leaders and members of other informal powerful groups, in order to retain power and manage local resources, often resort to networking with judges and other judicial officials at the national and local levels in a way that interests influential people in the judiciary by using local public resources. authorities. In turn, judicial officials within the judicial system obstruct investigative actions and proceedings in cases against local powerful people.

It is noted that the situation in local communities is further exacerbated by the loss of human resources, which is reflected in the high percentage of departures of residents, especially young and educated, which is a serious problem for the development of these communities. In this regard, concerns were expressed about the control of the media and local branches of national institutions by local authorities.

It is noted that civil society organizations, as well as the media in the Western Balkans, although in principle critical of authorities at all levels, often depend on the authorities, their grants, tax breaks and workspace. Arbitrary rewarding or denial of financial support or office space is a powerful tool for local “kidnappers” to silence criticism and develop clientelism in civil society.

He emphasizes that freeing the Western Balkans from the captivity of the authorities, both at the national and local levels, would greatly benefit the citizens living there, contribute to strengthening the economy, democratize society and reduce negative demographic trends, especially emigration.

Welcomes the fact that on 6 February 2020 the European Commission adopted a new methodology for the EU accession process for the Western Balkans and expects that the relationship between EU delegations and government representatives in the Western Balkans will be further intensified in the areas of rule of law, public reform governance, transparency, environmental protection, market competitiveness and sectoral policies.

In this context, the European Commission is called upon to pay even more attention to these deviations in the EU accession negotiations and the EU’s relations with the Western Balkans, both with national governments and with local and regional authorities, including thorough monitoring of local government captivity. , control over the implementation of legal and institutional solutions in
order to limit the discretionary powers of politicians over financial and human resources, and support media freedom through financial and educational incentives.

Finally, it points out that the EU’s conditionality in relations with the Western Balkans should take into account the real situation at national and local level, and not just monitor the formal fulfillment of criteria, mainly in terms of aligning national legislation with the EU acquis. This approach is more demanding, but the results could be much more useful. More attention needs to be paid to verifying the real state of local democracy, rule of law and good governance in the Western Balkans, including direct contacts with local and regional authorities and members of the political opposition, business and academia and civil society, as well as through organized and encouraged dialogues with citizens.

History of the opinion: The opinion was prepared at the initiative of Croatia within the Croatian presidency of the Council of the European Union, and was to be presented at the meeting of EU leaders with the leaders of the Western Balkans in May 2020 in Zagreb. The opinion was prepared by the prefect of the Dubrovnik-Neretva County, Nikola Dobroslavić, who is one of the members of the Committee of the Regions on behalf of Croatia. The opinion was discussed by the Committee of the Regions in February 2020 at the Committee on Citizenship, Governance, Institutional and Foreign Affairs in February 2020 and was fully accepted with a discussion that supported the content of the document. Several subsequent amendments were largely adopted. Due to the crisis caused by the corona virus, the plenary session of the Committee of the Regions scheduled for March, at which the opinion was to be adopted, was postponed. The opinion is currently awaiting a plenary session scheduled for October this year.

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