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Experts Say Judicial Reform Could Help Stem Corruption in Balkans

A recent European Union report says assuring the integrity and independence of the judiciary is an urgent need in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia-Montenegro and Albania.

The European Union report says corruption remains a huge problem in the Balkans. In a region where bribery, money-laundering and organized crime are pervasive, the European Union says, cleaning up the judiciary is a key reform requirement.

In Albania, there is little tradition of an independent judiciary. During 45 years of the harshest communist rule, judges took orders from the ruling party. Tentative reforms in the early 1990s were temporarily halted in 1997, when a financial panic triggered near anarchy and institutional collapse.

American financier George Soros has spent more than $40 million to promote democratic reform in Albania. Much of that money went to train lawyers and judges.

While progress has been made, Mr. Soros worries there is still a tendency to use the judiciary for political ends.

"Capable new people have become engaged in the judiciary, and it is very important [now] that there be no political interference, and then, I think, the judiciary will prove to be functioning well," he said.

Mr. Soros visited Tirana last week for the first time in five years.

Following parliamentary elections in July, Albania is in the midst of its first fully peaceful transfer of power since the end of communism. Mr. Soros and others cautioned the new government against attempting to use the judiciary to punish political adversaries.

"I hope that the fight against corruption will not deteriorate into an arbitrary series of actions that could actually endanger the institutions, which have been established," said Mr. Soros.

Ledi Bianku is an Albanian law professor, who heads Tirana's European Center. He outlines some of the requirements for judicial reform to prevail over political interference.

"... impartiality of the judges over corruption cases and over the judiciary itself. It is the ability to deal quickly and professionally with those cases, as well," he said. "Because if you are not very well professionally prepared, you are more likely to accept money, or to accept interference."

In its report, the European Commission said Albania must improve the independence and the efficiency of the judicial system. The report found the judiciary equally problematic in Serbia.

Serbia's anti-corruption council head, Verica Barac, says the conditions for an independent judiciary do not yet exist in Serbia. She says judges are controlled by the government, and there is no political will to fight corruption.

Boris Begovic, of Belgrade's Center for Liberal Democratic Studies, has written extensively about corruption. He agrees that Serbia's judicial system is badly in need of reform.

"Judges are rather incompetent, particularly in issues of commercial courts and commercial cases, and they are not efficient. They are not efficient because they are accountable to no-one," he said. "According to some surveys, the average time in contract enforcement in a typical commercial case is more than 1,000 days."

Mr. Begovic says bribes are often paid simply to expedite a case.

The EU report saves some of its harshest criticism for Serbia's Albanian-majority province of Kosovo. It identifies organized crime and widespread corruption as matters of great concern. It urges the elected ethnic-Albanian authorities to take action to assure that the public administration and judiciary are free of political control.

The entire western Balkans region gets low marks from the anti-corruption agency, Transparency International. Its latest corruption perceptions index lists Albania, Macedonia, Serbia-Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Romania as the most corrupt countries in Europe, outside the former Soviet Union.