The European Commission has singled out Moldova and Ukraine as needing to do more to tackle crime and corruption if they want to continue to benefit from visa-free access to the Schengen travel area.
In a statement released along with the report, Dimitris Avramopoulos, Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, said: “We are fully committed to safeguarding visa-free travel for citizens of the Western Balkans and Eastern Partnership countries and we are working together with their governments towards this goal. But ensuring this comes with responsibilities, for both citizens and the relevant authorities.”
The assessment was the first of its kind looking at issues surrounding irregular migration as well as crime and corruption in eight countries with whom the EU has signed visa liberalisation agreements. The countries include Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia in the Western Balkans and Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine among the so-called Eastern Partnership countries.
The visa liberalisation deals are regarded as a carrot by Brussels to encourage rule of law reforms and can be scrapped with any country if the EU decides that they are backsliding on their commitments.
In the statement accompanying the report, Avramopoulos commended all eight countries for demonstrating “strong commitment to meeting the necessary requirements” and for their efforts “to implement a number of far-reaching reforms set out under the visa liberalisation process.” However, he points to Moldova as needing to do more to fight corruption and money laundering. In Transparency International’s Perceptions of Corruption Index 2015, Moldova ranked 103rd out of 168, lower than its previous position, indicating widespread perceptions of lingering public sector corruption and a continuing decline from 2010.
Moldovans have good reason to hold their officials in such low esteem. The country is still reeling from the shock of discovering that between 2012 and 2015, about $1 billion (equivalent to one-eighth of Moldova’s GDP) was stolen from three national banks as a result of fraud.
Turning to Ukraine, Avramopoulos said that Kiev “needs to take immediate action to safeguard anti-corruption measures introduced with previous reforms and to allow further progress to be made,” an apparent reference to recent moves by President Petro Poroshenko and his allies to frustrate anti-graft reforms. These include a bill establishing an anti-corruption court that analysts have slammed for failing to ensure the independence of the judges and the allegations that the National Anti-corruption Bureau has been working to protect rather prosecute those suspected of bribery. The country also ranks poorly in terms of organized crime, ranked 113th out of 137 countries by a World Economic Forum report last month.
But the stakes – and obstacles to overcome – are arguably highest for Montenegro, one of the most corrupt and crime ridden states in the Balkans, which is currently in accession talks to join the EU. Not least because Montenegro’s perennial leader, Milo Djukanovic, has signalled his interest in running for president again, which if he were to win would be his second term as president…to add to his four terms as prime minister. Under his rule, Djukanovic effectively turned Montenegro into a bolthole for Balkan crime gangs where wanted criminals could count on safe refuge while they laundered their money in Djukanovic’s personal bank. A country where gangland killings have a shockingly low rate of conviction in the courts and where the prime minister himself (Djukanovic) can be named by Italian prosecutors in relation to a billion dollar cigarette smuggling operation involving the Italian mafia.
Referring to rumours of his presidential run, Djukanovic has said that he might return to Montenegrin politics if “the country needs his help.” In truth, the last thing Montenegro or any of the eight countries hoping to maintain visa-free access to Schengen needs is the kind of help that leaders like Djukanovic have to offer.