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A specter is haunting the Balkans: the specter of corruption

Transparency International's annual Corruption Perception Index (CPI) has become one of the most important barometers of good governance around the world.  There are a lot of interesting stories buried within the latest CPI, which has just been released. One of them involves the Balkans.

This year, Albania ranks not only as the most corrupt country in the region, but also as the most corrupt in Europe (excluding former Soviet republics like Moldova or Ukraine). Tirana managed to fall eighteen places in the index in a single year. It plunged from 95th in 2011 to 113th in 2012.

Albania's sister nation Kosovo, the youngest kid in the block, faired pretty miserably, too. Pristina did manage to improve a bit, rising from 112th in 2011 to 105th place in 2012, but that still leaves it as the second worst in the region. Other countries in the Balkans saw also their corruption perception rankings deteriorate, with Montenegro at 75 and Macedonia at 74.

Yet there was a bit of intriguing good news, too. Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia all moved up a few places. The so-called "bad boys" of the European Union also saw an improvement. Bulgaria rose from 86th to 74th place, while Romania went from 75th to 66th.

Everyone knows the CPI isn't a precise tool. It captures how businesspeople and experts perceive corruption in the public sector. It doesn't measure the level of corruption per se.

Yet in this particular case the study does seem to be capturing a larger trend. The countries that have fallen behind are conspicuous for failing to implement any specific polices to combat the problem. The country that has managed to come away with the best result, by contrast, has been tackling corruption head-on.

Croatia has earned the highest ranking among the Balkan countries for good reason. Its law-enforcement agencies and courts have an impressive track record over the past two years when it comes to prosecuting high-level corruption cases.

Even more importantly, Zagreb's ruling elite has shown the political will to extend the fight against corruption to the highest echelons of power.  The conviction of former Prime Minister Ivo Sanader (pictured above in court) on bribe-taking charges is one prime example.

Sanader was once the most powerful man in Croatia. He helped to transform his Christian Democratic Union Party (HDZ) from a relatively unsophisticated group of nationalists into an organization that firmly supported Croatian integration in to the European Union. But Sanader's tenure was dogged by questions about his conspicuously lavish lifestyle.

Sanader's indictment has made Croatia something of a model. Observers even minted the term "Sanaderization," which is now understood by almost everyone in the region as a synonym for the fight against sleaze. Thanks to Croatia's example, other countries now understand that they will only be able to make headway in the E.U. integration process if they force corrupt politicians to face up to their past misdeeds.

Sanader is not the only prime minister to find himself behind bars in the region. Former Romanian premier Adrian Nastase was also jailed last January for siphoning millions from state coffers in order to fund his 2004 reelection campaign. Although Romania remains one of the most corrupt states in the European Union, Nastase's conviction was a watershed. He was the highest-ranking public official successfully brought to book on corruption charges since the collapse of communism in 1989. When the police finally moved to arraign him on in his villa earlier this year, Nastase turned a gun on himself in an apparent suicide attempt.

Aside from these signs of progress, however, the European Union still faces an uphill climb in its efforts to contain corruption in the region. The most ambitious civilian crisis management mission ever launched by the Union, the E.U. Law and Order Mission in Kosovo (EULEX) has also been coming in for stiff criticism. EULEX has been accused of failing to prosecute key political figures accused of corruption and organized crime due to political interference.  A recent report by the European Court of Auditors slammed the mission as ineffective.

Their audit found that "overall progress in improving the rule of law is slow, particularly with regard to the fight against organized crime and corruption, above all in the north of Kosovo."

Albania, which brings up the rear of the Balkan countries in this year's CPI, has also seen a series of high-level corruption cases in recent years, but none of them have produced convictions. The one involving former Deputy Prime Minister Ilir Meta is a reminder of the challenges that the country faces. While he was in office, Meta turned up as the protagonist of a secretly filmed video published in January 2011 that shows him discussing bribes worth hundreds of thousands of euros with Dritan Prifti, the then-minister of economy.

The case against Meta collapsed one year later after the Supreme Court dismissed the poor-quality video as a fake (even though American and British experts testified to its authenticity). The scandal took a Hollywood-grade twist when the American IT expert hired by prosecutors to verify the authenticity of the first recording then found another video in Prifti's computer. In the second one Prifti is seen dividing up €70,000 ($90,700) with one of his deputies.

Both Meta and Prifti have been cleared of all charges and both deny any wrongdoing. As one local prosecutor once told me, to convict a politician of that caliber, two key ingredients are needed: a smoking gun and political will. Unfortunately, as Meta's and Prifti's cases both show, the smoking gun alone is not enough.

Photo by HRVOJE POLAN/AFP/Getty Images

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