H-Alter
Photo: Private albumPhoto: Private albumCornelia Abel, Regional Coordinator for South East Europe, Turkey and Israel at Transparency International: "From Trump and Putin to Plenković, we see a global tendency of 'shaming' the independent media and declaring wars against them. Just like Trump calls any news that he finds harmful to his rule, so does PM Plenković brand any news questioning his policies and decisions as a 'hybrid war'. Such statements are made typically in controlled societies, including authoritarian regimes, where consolidation of national ranks serves covering up of a multitude of problems, usually economic in nature, for which the ruling elite has no effective solution".

Cornelia Abel, Regional Coordinator for South East Europe, Turkey and Israel at Transparency International (TI) in an interview for H-Alter talks about problems with Croatian chapter of TI and its leading members, concept of open government, protection of whistleblowers, connection between populism and corruption, and Croatian lack of effort to tackle with corruption.

A few days ago Davorka Budimir, president of your former chapter Transparency International Croatia, claimed in an interview that Transparency International made decision to disaccredit them as a member of the TI movement, because "her organization is not part of left-liberal platform". She also stated that all reasons that Board of Directors of TI mentioned in their decision are minor. What exactly happened and how is the situation now with your former chapter in Croatia?

Actually it is now much easier for me to explain and sum up what happened than it was at the time. In the meantime it has become quite clear: our National Chapter in Croatia, which started operating in the year 2000, and while not always the most efficient, at least made some contributions in the fight against corruption, be it around legislation for party financing, for access to information or for battling conflicts of interest. The group started to attack human rights oriented NGOs or rather to voice the opinion of government representatives that attacked those types of NGOs rather openly at the time They implemented a number of interesting research projects, and were heavily campaigning to increase awareness for the right to access documents all around the country, to name just a few examples.

However, in 2013, internal conflicts at the level of the Board of Directors enabled a group of people, in cooperation with the Vice Chair and another Board member to take over the organization, evict over 90 percent of its members and rebuild it with people following their ideas. After that, it became more and more clear that the mindset of the new leadership was rather close to reactionary, ultra-conservative ideas as those gained traction in Croatian politics. The group started to attack human rights oriented NGOs or rather to voice the opinion of government representatives that attacked those types of NGOs rather openly at the time (especially under Minister of Culture Hasanbegović, but also before to some extent).

When did you decide to take action?

In order to be sure of the difference between this group and the Transparency International movement in terms of values, we at the time looked for evidence which took us quite some time as we are not always so deeply involved and clear on the ongoing political debate and did not want to accuse people without a solid base of evidence. We are not taking it lightly when assessing a member organization of the TI movement. It is a whole process, which normally takes several months. In this case, it took over two years! And it involved two warnings for dis-accreditation from the relevant international Board Committee before the final decision to exclude this organization from our movement was taken.

As I said, the situation was not always as clear-cut at the time, as they also did not play honest with us (which showed for example in their own reports that would at times contradict themselves), but by now I do not have any doubt that our name in Croatia was taken over by people that want to use the reputation, but for other values than the ones agreed by the TI movement.By now I do not have any doubt that our name in Croatia was taken over by people that want to use the reputation, but for other values than the ones agreed by the TI movement

Budimir denies all accusations and claims that there is no legal case against them and accuses TI for "nontransparent decision making and evaluation of chapters work". In fact, she claims that you made decisions based on information which was provided by "some individuals and associations". Can you comment on those allegations?

When trying to understand what was happening, and when suspicions were getting stronger that our own partner organization did not answer our questions to the best of their knowledge, but aiming to look good in our eyes only (obviously hiding something), we started to talk to different players in the Croatian society that could shed light on the character of these new people in the organization and could help us understand – and actually see – their real actions.

It actually had become clear rather early on that these people did not want to be honest with TI. E.g. when submitting their self-evaluation, they had asked the Executive Director at the time to delete certain critical lines not to have any doubts appear in those reading the assessment in TI- Secretariat. Of course then all documents were so slick that it raised extra-suspicion with us. I personally tried to meet and talk with a range of people closer and further away from the actual happenings in this NGO, and the overall picture that developed was, to say the least, not comforting.

We submitted our analysis to the Board committee - the same as Ms. Budimir and her colleagues submitted their reports and documents of proof in their view – it was a fair process and this was repeated several times around a set of questions determined by the Board to assess the organization and their abilities and readiness to pull their weight within the organization. When we disclosed the assessment to Ms. Budimir upon her request, one thing we did was to protect the sources. I had learned of several stories where Ms. Budimir had nastily attacked, e.g. others in the NGO community, and I did not want our sources to suffer such attacks. And it was sure at the time that she would have attacked anybody standing between her and accreditation to the TI movement, I have felt myself a number of those attempts.

How was the case finally resolved?

I had learned of several stories where Ms. Budimir had nastily attacked, e.g. others in the NGO community, and I did not want our sources to suffer such attacksThe Board Committee in charge of accreditation of National Chapters to Transparency International decided to recommend to the Board of Directors to disaccredit "TI Croatia" after more than two years of close monitoring and several rounds of reporting, and the Board decided to disaccredit. When Ms. Budimir objected to this decision, which in the TI processes is possible and built in as a safeguard against unfair treatment of member organizations, an ad hoc Board Committee was formed with members who had not previously been involved in this case, and they again reviewed evidence and took their own decision – following the original board decision.

So the final decision to disaccredit the organization was taken in March 2016, and the organization – Ms. Budimir as its highest representative – was informed of this decision on 10th March 2016 via letter from the Chair of Transparency International at the time, Jose Ugaz. This was followed by two so-called "Cease and Desist letters", a legal term for letters demanding them to stop using the name and logo of Transparency International.

We did not want to unnecessarily harm people involved in the organization that had been TI Croatia, we did not inform stakeholders pro-actively in the beginning, but as we learned about lies being spread by Ms. Budimir, who continued to act as if she still had the right to carry the name "Transparency International", we did inform embassies, national institutions and media in April 2016.

I should also note that we did not immediately go to court when the denial and lies continued. We had been advised to seek a decision of the administrative body responsible for the registration of Croatia associations, which we did. So after quite some back and forth, and submission of evidence we obtained a decision from the "Grad Zagreb - Gradski ured za opću upravu" which supported our view of the issue, but also noted that the institution was not in charge of enforcing such a decision. After some consideration of potential cost and benefit, we finally did take the issue to court in October 2017, to the municipal and the commercial court, and we hope one of the judgments comes soon.After some consideration of potential cost and benefit, we finally did take the issue to court in October 2017, to the municipal and the commercial court

Are there similar problems with some other chapters of Transparency International?

TI Croatia is not the only organization that has been dis-accredited. But that is precisely why this process exists! NGOs have large turnovers within longer or shorter amounts of time, and since we always urge our chapters to have members which would then oversee the Board of Directors, unfortunately, this does not always play out to make the organization with a multitude of voices and more proximity to the citizens that they are serving, but it can also make it more vulnerable towards use for special interests (especially when numbers of members are small).

Within South-East Europe, we actually disaccredited two chapters – Croatia and Albania. In Albania the issue was that the chapter leadership was too close to a specific political party and gravely violated the principle of non-partisanship. This does at times happen. We also have issues with a former chapter in India currently, for example. Though each case is quite specific in the end.

Crorruption Index, 2016., Photo: Transparency International Crorruption Index, 2016., Photo: Transparency International

Croatia had very little success in running branches of international organizations such as yours, but also Amnesty International and Helsinki Committee for Human Rights. It is not just a case in Croatia, but in some other countries too. How can one explain that?

Well, I suppose the reputation of these international organizations is quite tempting for forces wanting to give credibility to their own ideas. I believe, what makes these takeovers possible is on the one hand of course those malicious intentions, but also some weakness on our side. I know for Transparency International that our process for accrediting and checking on member organizations developed over time, and while it has been much stronger in the past 3 years (enabling the disaccreditation of non-credible, non-effective members), it still has weaknesses that In essence, we are a community or a movement of like-minded activists that follow roughly the same values and goals, and of course in order for this to function in this decentralized way, there needs to be a good amount of trustcan only be ended by making the process much more tedious for all parties involved.

In essence, we are a community or a movement of like-minded activists that follow roughly the same values and goals, and of course in order for this to function in this decentralized way, there needs to be a good amount of trust. So there is the weakness, which is being used. But we are working on strengthening this process further little by little.

Although Budimir’s candidacy for National Monitoring Council for the Implementation of the Anti-Corruption Strategy (Anti-Corruption Council) was revoked at the last moment, her colleague Ivica Kruhoberc became the member. The very choice of outside Council members was not transparent and it still represents agreement between the ruling and opposition parties. How can we talk about serious efforts to fight corruption in that context?

Unfortunately, the Sabor has all the prerogatives to select the individuals into this authority. While they want to appease the public by giving it a sense of autonomous and independent individuals being appointed into this authority, in fact behind the scene negotiations with such individuals are possible, so while they don’t represent any political party, they could possibly promote partisan interest in this commission. Independent review commissions must not only publicly advertise such vacancies/appointments, but also have a transparent selection process, whereby the public is informed of the candidates’ biographies, relevance and the selection criteria, as well as the results of the process. Even if you look to the neighbouring countries, the Commission in Serbia has traditionally claimed a large public confidence, but it unfortunately lacked the means and the tools of institutional scrutiny, so it can be more effective. If there is no public confidence and support behind the anti-corruption commission, it becomes a rubber-stamp for the ruling elite. Also, the mandate has to be clear, so it can perform a useful oversight.

The Right of Access to Information is constitutional right in Croatia, but there is still an enormous problem for citizens and journalists to exercise that right. For example, some public institutions do not have information officers or they simply decline citizen’s request for information. Office of the Information Commissioner is underfunded, some very important public consultations are launched in the middle of holidays, etc. Can we say that the concept of open government is just a formality in this case?

This is very true. E-consultations are rare and only beginning. Even so, the deadlines for comments are very short and by far and large, most of If there is no public confidence and support behind the anti-corruption commission, it becomes a rubber-stamp for the ruling elitethe public has no information of the new platform that solicits comments. The old-fashioned consultative process usually rounds up only the selected private sector representatives or individuals from whom no true comments are expected. And still very often the laws in the Sabor are passed through the urgent procedure that requires no consultations.

Look at the massive issue of the Law on War Veterans - this suddenly created fiscal liability of hundreds of millions of kunas without the public having had any opportunity to interfere with the inter-partisan debate. Another example was the dam on the Cetina River, for which the government claims a public debate was held, but no interested party was aware of this debate. You certainly can fulfill the letter of the law without the spirit of the law and that as a rule plays into the hand of the non-transparency ruling elite and it is very totalitarian in style.

Among criteria for Corruption Perceptions Index is a high degree of press freedom and support for civil society. Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković recently stated that "hybrid war" is led against Croatia without specifying who is leading that "war", what are the consequences, etc., but it can be interpreted that he is primarily thinking about journalists and media. Is it a part of global trend of "fake news"? What are real consequences of those statements?

From Trump and Putin to Plenković, we see a global tendency of 'shaming' the independent media and declaring wars against them. Just like You certainly can fulfill the letter of the law without the spirit of the law and that as a rule plays into the hand of the non-transparency ruling elite and it is very totalitarian in styleTrump calls any news that he finds harmful to his rule, so does PM Plenkovic brand any news questioning his policies and decisions as a 'hybrid war'. It is pointless to discuss this term, as it has no foundation in the work of the media, particularly the independent ones. If Prime Minister really believes that, he should at least state the obvious: the evidence and then open a public debate on the war-like situation that added tensions to daily politics. The public needs to know if it is in any state of war, but also what the country does to protect itself.

By making such claims, Plenković creates tensions in the society and tries to portray himself as a 'saviour' prepared to bring the nation back to safety. Such statements are made typically in controlled societies, including authoritarian regimes, where consolidation of national ranks serves covering up of a multitude of problems, usually economic in nature, for which the ruling elite has no effective solution.

A month ago, the European Parliament voted an important report on the need for EU framework for the protection of whistleblowers after a few big scandals like Lux Leaks, Paradise Papers, Panama Papers and many more. Although whistleblowing has been widely recognized as a tool against corruption and fraud, many counties still persecute whistleblowers as state enemies. Can we maybe expect a binding framework on EU level in the future?

In order to decide whether and how to propose whistleblowing legislation, the EC is conducting an assessment of the impact that a lack of whistleblower protection has on the EU market, on human rights and on the environment. They are delayed with this and we are now expecting If Prime Minister really believes that, he should at least state the obvious: the evidence and then open a public debate on the war-like situation that added tensions to daily politics. The public needs to know if it is in any state of war, but also what the country does to protect itselfthe report early next year (TBD). It is unclear whether they will propose an EU Directive of soft guidelines. TI is currently advocating for a binding EU Directive on whistleblowing, but it is hard at this point to estimate the chances for this.

After Transparency International released Corruption Perceptions Index 2016, your organization issued a text, which is explaining connection between populism, socio-economic status and the anti-corruption agenda. It states how populist leaders regularly make a connection between a "corrupt elite" interested only in enriching themselves and their (rich) supporters and the marginalization of "working people". If we look at elected leaders for past few years through Europe we can conclude that this statement is true. What is the solution in those cases, especially in Croatia which has a huge problem - both with corruption and populism on local and national level?

Sadly, the 1930s in Germany gave rise to the German National Socialist Workers Party, later commonly known as Nazis. Its key policy was populism, supporting ethnic and religious divisions and discrimination, while at the face of it fostering the labour rights. We increasingly note rise of the similar policies and tendencies across Eastern but also Southeast Europe. The populist agenda has most often proven to be a cover up for the problems in society that the ruling elite cannot resolve and by permanently threatening the public with the known and the unknown enemies, seemingly different than the national caucasus, they allow the selected few to make deals away from the eyes of the public.

It is even dangerous to question the elites because in such semi-emergency cases, this would be seen as national treason and armies of supporters are nurtured that will inhibit a proper public discourse. Sadly, many of the recent EU members find themselves in such deadlock situation, which will almost definitely affect the critical post-Brexit discussions of a multi-tier Europe, where access to the core might be denied to those that prefer isolation to integration.


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