There’s an expression in the Western Balkans: to build a new democracy, you need all hands on deck.
The desire to bring honesty, accountability and transparency to a region still recovering from 40 years of Soviet-style Communist dictatorship is so profound, that the usual firewalls that typically divide constituencies do not exist in Southeast Europe.
You see it most clearly with NGOs and the media. Ethically barred from cooperating in many parts of the world, activists and journalists in the Western Balkans not only allow themselves to work together, many see it as essential to succeed professionally, maximize their impact, and withstand threats of persecution and violence from politically connected criminals.
Also dwindling is the traditional gap between civil society and government. While suspicious or even hostile toward each other in most countries, activists and public officials in Southeast Europe have grown to realize the need to collaborate in order for their fragile democracies to have a chance to thrive. They acknowledge their shared interest in casting out corruption and building public integrity.
This spirit is evidenced by the many joint initiatives to enhance democratic values and practice. One of them is a new regional campaign to improve whistleblower protections in six Western Balkan jurisdictions and Moldova.
Heading the three-year project is the Regional Anti-Corruption Initiative (RAI), an intergovernmental organization based in Sarajevo. Funded by the EU, “Breaking the Silence” unites officials and activists to nurture better practice within government and cultural changes throughout society – for the benefit of whistleblowers.
The head of RAI’s Secretariat is Vladan Joksimović, a former deputy director of Serbia’s Anti-Corruption Agency. Few public officials in the region know the issue of whistleblowing better than Joksimović, who helped protect about 100 citizen crime-fighters from retaliation in Serbia in 2010-15.
As RAI’s director, Joksimović now is ideally positioned to help whistleblowers throughout Southeast Europe. “All of the countries in the region were looking for new tools to fight corruption. Whistleblowing is now recognized as one of them,” he says, “and it is very high on the political agenda in most if not all countries.”
“We are going to be very active,” Joksimović said of the new project, “We’re looking at institutional arrangements, starting public awareness campaigns that include youth, working with civil society, and building confidence in the public agencies responsible for protecting whistleblowers. The legislation is more or less set up, so we have a framework to do the job.”
“We have to work more, but there is hope. We’re on the right track,” he said. “The most important factor is the political willingness to fight corruption. Officials have recognized whistleblowing as valuable.”
Still to be overcome is the legacy of Cold War-era authoritarian rule. “During the old Communist system, people who passed on certain information to the police were seen as whistleblowers,” Joksimović said. “In those days, whistleblowing wasn’t the same. Many citizens today are not seeing it in the proper way and the proper context.” Expanded media coverage of cases, he says, will help to update public perceptions.
Gianluca Esposito, Executive Secretary of the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption agency GRECO, agrees with the need to change citizen awareness. “One of the biggest problems is that people say they don’t like the word. The idea in these countries is that whistleblowers are people who sneak around behind your back. The cultural element needs to be overcome.”
Like Joksimović, Esposito places hope behind whistleblower protection and other anti-corruption tools. “I’m seeing anti-corruption at the center of debates, and mass demonstrations in the streets about corruption. There are very positive developments. I can only be optimistic about the future.”