IRI’s Work on Transparency in Southeast Europe – A Year in Review

  • Thibault Muzergues

In the minds of many Westerners, Southeast Europe is often associated with images of poverty and corruption. And although these two images are clichés that do not necessarily reflect reality, as a famous former US presidential candidate said early in this year, “Bucharest has faster Internet access than many American cities.” Despite great strides in the region, corruption remains a major issue in all Balkan countries, whether West or East, EU member or non-EU member.

However, what is less known, is that in these countries several actors are working very hard to tackle poverty and corruption, and in some cases are already making real headway in improving transparency in their countries. During the summer of 2016, I was in Tirana to organize with our partners from the Foundation for Freedom and Democracy the first ever roundtable on “Corruption and Transparency: the Way forward for Albania.” This was during a time of very tense discussions between the government and opposition over a constitutional reform to drastically change the Albanian justice system. This successful roundtable had the twofold effect of appeasing some immediate tensions over the reform and of opening debate to complementary transparency issues that Albania must tackle if it is to successfully integrate fully into the European family. 

IRI applied the same methodology in September to organize another roundtable on the other side of the Balkan Peninsula, this time in EU-member Romania, in partnership with the Expert Forum. Post EU-entry Romania has a long story of fighting for increased transparency, and the founding of an independent National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) in 2003 has done a great deal to punish politicians guilty of acts of corruption and to bring into disrepute several prominent political figures in Romania, not least of whom was the then-ascendant Victor Ponta, who had to resign from his premiership last year amid a series of scandals. Following Ponta’s dismissal, all political actors in Romania agreed to the formation of a technocratic government that has done much to promote more transparency in the administration and beyond. This was partly due to the unique position of an apolitical government comprised of technocrats, CSO representatives, and party politicians being united to reinsert trust in the political system. However, as new legislative elections are due at the end of this week, the political game and its traditional divisions have re-emerged, putting further progress on anti-corruption on the backburner.

This is why IRI and its partners wanted to bring together all actors on the country’s political scene before the start of the political campaign to discuss their roles as well as their disagreements in making Romanian governance more transparent. The result, an open conference on “transparency and integrity in the Romanian public sphere,” was a success not only because it put all these relevant actors together, but also because it pushed them to talk and listen to one another without devolving into the all-too-common habit of trying to point fingers at each other. During the event, which was held in Romania’s Parliament Building, I was approached several times by speakers and spectators alike who expressed surprise at seeing important personalities actually publically talking to each other – one of them even mentioned the “tour de force” of having all parties represented in a roundtable only three months before legislative elections, discussing their respective roles in making Romania more transparent in a co-operative mode.

Among the people at the conference were the then-Minister of European Funds Cristian Ghinea and his team, who had shown interest in using a tool IRI had originally applied at the local level: the Vulnerabilities to Corruption Approach (VCA).  Following several follow-up meetings, we agreed on adapting the VCA methodology to conduct an assessment of the proposal evaluation and selection process for a specific European fund. After an intensive week of interviews and research, the assessment produced by our colleagues in Washington is a 19-page document containing both an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the past processes as well as very specific and (in some cases quickly) implementable steps to make the process more efficient, more transparent, and, in the end, more understandable for citizens and grant applicants. The electoral campaign and uncertainty over the identity of the Ghinea’s eventual successor have of course slowed down the change process within the Ministry. However, we remain hopeful that once the new government is in place, the new Minister of European Funds will make good use of the improvements we proposed.

The efforts made by IRI’s Europe program team this year in terms of transparency speak to the work that IRI does beyond its, still very relevant, role in assisting political parties. Of course, like many other NGOs, we offer tools that provide actors with useful mechanisms to improve governance in their countries. But IRI differs in that its political work puts it in a unique position to earn the trust of most politicians, working with them while speaking their language.

As I was reminded in both of the transparency conferences we organized in Albania and Romania this year, too many times we have seen civil society organizations, politicians, or political parties at odds with each other, feeding their resentment of each other by furthering misconceptions and a general distrust while nevertheless sharing the same goal (albeit using different methods and taking their legitimacy from different sources). Being an NGO with a clear but open political identity (and also coming from the outside), IRI is able to bridge the gaps and facilitate the emergence of a dialogue between the different “powers” in play: government, parliamentarians, political parties, and civil society; while providing meaningful solutions to help solve the problems of societies and polities we work with.

This is also what IRI is all about, and hopefully we will continue to prove our usefulness in Southeast Europe in the new year.  

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