Finding Politically Feasible Anticorruption Reforms in Bosnia and Herzegovina: The Case for Indirect Approaches

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), like many of its neighbors in the Western Balkans, is beset by endemic, seemingly unsolvable corruption. Understandably, many Bosnian citizens would like to see the prosecution and conviction of high-level officials engaged in corrupt practices. Local activists and the international community have pressed for improvements to BiH’s judicial sector and law enforcement capacities, at least in part to make such high-level prosecutions more likely, and more likely to succeed. Yet while convictions of corrupt senior officials should indeed be one important goal, in the short term it will be very difficult to achieve, for the simple and familiar reason that political leaders will vigorously resist any changes that could put themselves at risk of criminal prosecution. Ending the culture of elite impunity in BiH, while necessary, will remain a long-term project.

That doesn’t mean, though, that there’s nothing that can be done about corruption in BiH in the short-to-medium term. Indeed, there are a number of measures, besides direct criminal prosecutions, that could reduce corruption in ways that are more indirect, and therefore less threatening to those currently in power. That feature, coupled with the fact that many of these reforms would also produce substantial economic benefits even independent of their corruption-reducing effect, makes these kinds of reforms more politically feasible. Reforms in the two following economic areas are examples of how BiH could cut opportunities for corruption and make everyday life better for Bosnians, and do so in a way that might be acceptable or even attractive to incumbent politicians.

  • First, BiH can reform its complicated, decentralized, and expensive business registration and administrative processes—processes that are not only inefficient, but that create plenty of opportunities for bureaucratic corruption. (BiH currently ranks 90th out of 190 countries in the World Bank’s Doing Business Report, low even compared to its neighbors.) One promising reform (already adopted in one part of the country, the Republika Srpska, in 2013) is the “one-stop shop,” which streamlines the business registration process and increases information sharing among different administrative units. Making greater use of modern technology, for example by adopting e-service platforms and providing centralized online access to information about processes and fees, would further improve the process and reduce opportunities for corruption. Even better, building an interactive platform where people can ask questions in real-time, coupled with a mechanism for reporting abuses of power, would further empower citizens and limit opportunities for corruption. These business climate reforms are not very politically sensitive, and might be appealing to the political elite because of the reforms’ potential to boost growth and foreign direct investment.
  • Second, BiH can reform its public procurement system, a major source of both corruption and inefficiency in BiH despite the enactment of an updated Law on Public Procurement in 2015 and the creation of a national Public Procurement Agency. Here again, modern technology can help. Ukraine, for example, adopted an electronic procurement platform called ProZorro that has largely put an end to the most blatant schemes related to public tendering. State owned enterprises in Ukraine are obliged to use this centralized system for their procurement and to report their financial statements publicly. This system could serve as a model for BiH. The country should also follow the Open Government Partnership’s recommendations that BiH make all public procurement data publicly available. (The Bosnian Center for Investigative Reporting already has its own database on public procurement, which could be used as a template for a government-sponsored database.) Additionally, specific amendments to the 2015 law would curb opportunities for corruption. For example, the law should narrow the scope for “negotiated procedures” and more strictly limit the use of “emergency” clauses to bypass normal procurement processes. Public procurement reform is more controversial and politically challenging than general business climate reforms, because this form of corruption often benefits political elites. But there is significant public pressure, both domestically and from the international community, to make progress in this area. Given this pressure, which could entail delays in EU accession talks and the withholding of foreign assistance funds, it would be hard for Bosnian political leaders to publicly reject help regarding technological updates to the country’s public procurement systems.

Reforms like these are not overtly corruption-focused, but they would indirectly reduce corruption in meaningful ways, while also fostering economic growth and alleviating some of the daily economic burdens faced by Bosnians. It may be frustrating that high-level politicians and their cronies will continue to avoid accountability for grand corruption, and of course ending their impunity must remain a longer-term goal. But in a challenging political environment like that in BiH, activists should continue to pursue other ways to make incremental but important progress against corruption, and should find opportunities to develop and advocate for reforms that even the current political class might be persuaded or pressured into accepting.

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