Visa liberalization or fighting elite crime?

Kosovars should choose for themselves whether fighting corruption is more important than the privilege of travelling without visas to the EU.

Border demarcation was a binary, black-or-white condition for visa liberalization. This is one reason why most attention went to it. But one other condition remains, as all EU officials’ congratulatory statements underlined: progress in the fight against corruption and organized crime.

Many—including Aidan Hehir, in this newspaper—criticize this condition, on two arguments: double standards and unfairness. First, visa liberalization was granted to many countries—all the Balkan and former Soviet ones—that were no less, or even more corrupt than Kosovo, either at the time visa liberalization was granted or now. Second, the EU deployed EULEX to Kosovo precisely to fight corruption and organized crime, but the mission did next to nothing and—in my own assessment at least—its inaction contributed to an apparent worsening of both problems. So, critics say, the corruption condition should be lifted.

I agree with their critique, but am skeptical about their conclusion. My skepticism draws on my assessment of the long-term interests of Kosovo.

Over the past few years the country witnessed many official decisions that were openly aiding, or were clearly tainted by, corruption, clientelism, and nepotism; and leaked wiretaps unveiled how deep, pervasive, and even arrogant those practices are. In other countries—I refer chiefly to Macedonia and Romania—similar events have sparked vast and persistent revolts, which achieved valuable results. In Kosovo those events have largely fallen flat. It seems that more is needed for the citizens of Kosovo to perceive how greatly elite crime is damaging their lives, and therefore to react appropriately, as their Macedonian and Romanian brothers and sisters did. This might be a reflection of the fact that Kosovo’s elite is more homogenous in its interests, and more entrenched into society, than the elites of comparable countries.

Set against this background, the outstanding condition for visa liberalization could serve as a wedge, visibly distancing the interests of citizens from the interests of the elite. The word ‘visibly’ is critical: if that condition remains, and visa liberalization is not granted, it will be clear to all that (1) the interests of citizens diverge from the interests of the elite, and (2) the elite, by not fighting its own criminal practices, is acting in its own interest and against the interests of citizens. Then we might see in Kosovo the revolts that we saw in Macedonia and Romania.

Indeed in one recent article for Koha Ditore I even wondered whether the whole border demarcation story was not a ploy by the elite to avoid being put squarely before its citizens on the corruption condition. After all, if you take the elite’s words at face value, very little makes sense in that story.

From all this I do not draw the conclusion that the EU should stand by that condition and be rigorous in assessing its fulfilment for at least two reasons. The first is that visa liberalization is intrinsically desirable—for reasons that many have said, and I shall not repeat—and could itself contribute to the fight against corruption and organized crime (because travelling to better-governed countries is assumed to generate the aspiration for better governance in one’s own country).

The second is that only Kosovars—whose interests are the basis of what I am saying—can decide that. The choice is not theirs, of course: but it would be important for citizens to tell the EU whether they want it to lift that condition, or to be rigorous about it. And the EU ought to pay attention to what they say.

So, Kosovo society should debate this question in order to be able to tell the EU whether they prefer visa liberalization presently, or whether they prefer to keep a wedge that could help them overcome their collective action problem in fighting elite corruption. The debate, incidentally, would itself help Kosovo society address the country’s corruption and governance problems.

But where should such a debate be held, and who can speak on the citizens’ behalf? We can rule out the president, government, and parliamentary majority, because they are controlled by the elite. Even one opposition party, LDK, is heavily implicated in corruption. That would leave Vetevendosje and its spin-off, on one hand, and the informal representatives of the people, civil society and the media, on the other. But there is a further caveat, because the urban/rural and educated/uneducated divides are fairly deep in Kosovo, and I presume that civil society and the media disproportionately represent the urban and the educated. Yet, while all Kosovars suffer the weight of elite crime more or less equally, I suppose that the rural and the uneducated are those who are least likely to benefit from visa liberalization (because many might be unable to afford the travel costs, for example).

This does not imply that the debate I imagined is not possible. Some form of public discussion is possible, I think, and any form of debate would be good and useful. The point, rather, is that the interests of those who are unlikely to be heard in the debate should also be taken into account, even if they remain silent.

These considerations are all in vain, however, if Brussels and the main Western governments still have an interest in keeping this elite in office—to close the dialogue with Serbia, for instance. This may well be the case, and might explain why the sleep of the special court continues. If so, I suppose that Brussels will maintain the corruption condition until its other covert political ones are met, it will then wait enough time not to lose face, and it will declare that the condition has been met, even if nothing has been done. If so, however, hopefully citizens will conclude that nobody but them can take the teeth of the elite off their jugulars.

The opinions expressed in the opinion section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.

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