“The real difference you make is by creating connections. Prosecutors in the Balkans will get to know their counterparts in EU member states. That is something that will remain after the project has ended. To me, in the long run, this is the way for international cooperation.” In this CILC Story, which closes the series of interviews celebrating 30 years of CILC, Gabriele Walentich, EU seconded prosecutor in Belgrade, will provide some insight in how she, through the Western Balkans Prosecutors’ Network, is assisting Western Balkan countries in fighting cross-border organised crime. Walentich: “Sometimes our countries tend to be somewhat reluctant to work with the Balkan states, because they think it is a bit tricky and fear information might leak and so on. Through this project, trust will be built and personal contacts established. That is very important, since in the end it all comes down to team work.”
Interview by Marjolein C. Groot, 5 April 2016
Kosovo for one year
“In 2008, during my commute in a totally packed train, the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Berlin called me and asked: ‘Would you be ready to go to Kosovo for a year?’” For a few days, Gabriele Walentich, who had never expected such a request, pondered over the question. Then she gave the Ministry the green light. “I told them: ‘OK, one year.’ But as you can see, meanwhile this period has been extended quite a bit.”
Walentich, currently working as European Union (EU) seconded prosecutor for the Western Balkans Prosecutors’ Network in Belgrade, started her career as prosecutor in 1980 in North Rhine-Westphalia. She still has her office there. “They literally haven’t seen me there for almost 20 years.” After the German reunification, Walentich worked for four years in Potsdam, in the state of Brandenburg. She returned to North Rhine-Westphalia to work for the Interior Ministry on crime prevention. “In that position, I was also responsible for a European project.” In 2008, Walentich arrived in Kosovo to join the newly established European Union rule of law mission EULEX as an EU seconded prosecutor.
Western Balkans Prosecutors’ Network
“It is a bit early to ask me: ‘How’s Belgrade?’ It is not comparable to Pristina or Skopje at all. I still have to find my way around.” Since early 2016, Walentich, who did not leave the Balkans after her assignment with the office of the Chief EULEX Prosecutor, is based in Belgrade for the second edition of the Western Balkans Prosecutors’ Network (WBPN). Before that, she worked from the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). The Western Balkans Prosecutors’ Network supports regional cooperation for fighting organised crime in Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, FYROM, Montenegro and Serbia. Similarly to its first edition, which also included Croatia, it has a total budget of 5.26 million Euro. The current project runs until October 2017 and is funded by the European Commission. CILC is one of the implementing partners.
Walentich did not exactly apply for her position as EU seconded prosecutor in the Western Balkans Prosecutors’ Network. She was already working in the Balkans for the German Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) in the first WBPN project, when CILC’s senior project manager/deputy director Eric Vincken approached her for the position. “What I really like about CILC is that this is small and therefore non-bureaucratic. It is a flat, non-formal and small organisation and issues are worked out fast and smoothly.”
One of the main tasks of the network is to support ongoing criminal investigations and prosecution of serious and trans-border organised crimes, e.g. linked cases of illicit trafficking destined to the EU – in particular trafficking in firearms, drugs and human beings. Walentich: “Most of the cases concern organised crime. A cross-border or international element is necessary. This can be in the Balkan region or in EU member states.”
The beneficiaries of the WBPN are prosecutors and other staff of the prosecution offices, investigators from the police and other law enforcement bodies and staff of the various ministries of justice involved in mutual legal assistance in combating serious and cross-border organised crime.
“For example: a project partner needs judicial assistance from abroad. We receive the request to facilitate an operation meeting between the investigators and prosecutors involved, to meet their foreign colleagues and discuss the investigation process of the case, the needed evidence and how to deal best with legal requirements.” Usually, Walentich and her international colleagues attend these meetings, depending on whether the prosecutors allow them to. “Personally, I never had a problem with this. We only give advice when we think it is really necessary.” Another request that may come up is regarding translation issues. “Once, they needed a translation from Urdu. We searched for a proper translator and would pay the costs.” The EU seconded prosecutors also facilitate contacts between their colleagues in the Western Balkans states and EU member states, both on a strategic and operational level. Walentich: “This issue is sometimes difficult for them.” The project is trying to address this and bringing the local prosecutors closer to European legal institutions, such as the EU’s judicial cooperation unit EUROJUST, the European Judicial Network in criminal matters (EJN), a network of national contact points for the facilitation of judicial cooperation in criminal matters, and EUROPOL, the EU’s law enforcement agency.
One of the main differences from her work as a prosecutor in Germany is that Walentich has only an advisory role and not an executive one. “When I worked
with the EU rule of law mission EULEX in Kosovo, I also had a mentoring role, in addition to an executive role. That is always quite complicated, if not to say, rather difficult.” In her current position, everything is dependent on the beneficiaries of the project, on the information they provide the project with and are willing to share. “That constitutes the main difference from my work as prosecutor in Germany. Other than the language of course.”
A real difference Walentich experiences between Germany and the Balkan countries is that they are going through a constant change. “Laws are changing and changing and there is no real solid ground, neither for my local colleagues, nor for the rest of the population. I think that is a real difficulty they have to face in their daily work. There is always something new and there isn’t yet existing jurisprudence on the matter. Also, since laws are not really made in a ‘package’, this often results in amended laws that have inconsistencies compared to pre-existing laws. This is something they run into quickly, bringing up difficulties in how to implement the conflicting laws. Sometimes I pity my colleagues. In Germany or similar Western European democracies, by contrast, laws only change every once in a while. A few articles or so will be changed in a law. The underlying concept remains. Here, the concept also changes. That is difficult.”
Not only laws are constantly changing, roles are changing too. “At the moment, the prosecutor is the leader of the investigations. This was only implemented in 2012 or 2013. Sometimes I think all these changes are a bit much.” Walentich says that in a way, but her Balkan colleagues are just used to such changes. “They lack the kind of reservations I might have. They just take it for granted that laws are changing and that they simply have to change with the changes.” Walentich further notes that in the Balkans there is a hybrid system: a cross between the American and the European law system. “Historically, the Balkan countries are modeled on the German or Austrian law system. For me, this hybrid system is quite difficult to deal with.”
Another operational difficulty regards office equipment. “There is a lack of everything from important tools such as IT, databases, for example, all the way down to toners or paper. Donors provided a very fancy copy machine, but it was not used for over a year. There was no toner. At the end of the day, what is the use of expensive equipment if you cannot use it?”
Good office location
Unlike the first WBPN project, when Walentich was based in Skopje in the Special Office on Organised Crime, in Serbia the EU seconded prosecutor is located at the Office of the State Prosecutor. “They told us the Office for Organised Crime was very packed and they did not have space for us.” The Office of the State Prosecutor also hosts the Department for Mutual Legal Assistance for prosecutors. In Walentich’s view, this is not exactly the proper place to be, a bit aside from everything and quite formalised, meaning she has to inquire when her counterparts have time for her and make appointments to discuss issues. “In Macedonia we were based on the same floor as our colleagues of the Special Office on Organised Crime. That is totally different. You can easily drop by the office of the local colleagues, invite them for a coffee, and discuss cases. A very easy approach. Police officers, visiting the offices drop by and you can have a chat with them. In general, you belong to the office, you belong to the special prosecution office. I think the location of the office is a really important issue for a mission.”
Walentich says it is hard to describe an ordinary working day in her current position. “There isn’t one day like the other. You cannot really develop a routine for your daily office work. That is simply not possible. It is dependent on people. Sometimes one tries to schedule meetings with prosecutors, for example, but they might not be available due to other obligations.” In Belgrade, Walentich is the only EU seconded prosecutor in her office. She has a Serbian assistant, a ‘national legal officer’. “A lot of internationals are around to run projects, such as police projects, for example. Quite a few stakeholders are involved in rule of law issues, such as the Americans, the EU and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). One has to verify if other projects overlap with one’s project. We should avoid duplication of efforts.”
Role of politics
During her time in the Balkans, Walentich particularly learned to appreciate the stable economy and governance system in her country, as opposed to the constant changes populations of the Balkans are subjected to. “Sometimes, when looking at your own country, you can be highly critical. But when you are abroad, you might be surprised to learn how others have a totally different view of your country. In the Balkans, Germany is very much appreciated.”
A important difference is also in the impact of politics on public institutions, such as courts and the police – and also in the prosecution offices. “At home this role is not as big. Here, you are always on shaky ground with politics. Public institutions are built on politics, this means that for example political parties bring their staff into these kinds of offices. Furthermore, when a new political party comes to power, a lot of positions will be changed. This means you’ll have instability and no continuity or sustainability. At home, if political parties rotate in government, the public administration generally stays in place. Only a few very high political posts might be changed.”
Time moves slowly
Walentich did not start her work in the Balkans with high aspirations in the sense of believing she would be able to make ‘big changes’. On the contrary; she would advise people in her position to be realistic. “Changes need a lot of time and you can only take tiny little steps. Otherwise you might be disappointed and that doesn’t help you or your mission.” She noticed people suffering from ‘helpers’ syndrome’. “They are burning out very easily and fast.” According to Walentich, time in the Balkans moves slowly. “You really need a lot of time. A many things do not depend on you.”
During her many years in the Balkans, Walentich did not witness big changes. “Not really. There are discreet changes. Some IT equipment is better, the local prosecutors themselves say they are sufficiently trained. Still, there is capacity missing. In general, I think there is still a lot to do. A long way to go.” The latest European Commission’s annual progress report on Serbia, released in November 2015, notes among others that more needs to be done in terms of fighting corruption, curbing political influence over the judiciary and ensuring media freedom and freedom of expression. As an, EU candidate country, Serbia is hoping to open accession negotiations soon on the key chapters 23 (judiciary and fundamental rights) and 24 (justice, freedom and security).
One of the aspects on which Walentich as a so-called ‘international’ says she can make a difference is in establishing professional contacts abroad. “Much easier for me than for my local colleagues.” Even if they would also be able to do this, the structure of their offices often works against it. “It is shaped like a pyramid. Without the consent of the head of office, nothing will happen. In some cases, this might hamper spontaneous action, such as simply picking up the phone and calling someone.”
According to Walentich, in order to function as an international in a local context, you first have to establish good personal relationships. “Without these, or without trust, nothing will work out. You will have to drink a lot of coffees and talk a lot – you cannot just go ahead in a meeting and say directly: ‘We have this or that problem, let’s solve it’. It is crucial that people trust you and know that what you say is what you mean. They have to believe that they will find a reliable partner when dealing with you and that you really want to solve their problems, whatever these might be.”
Walentich is well aware of the fact that, generally, organisations resist change. “And persons also have difficulties with changes. That is also something I told my local colleagues: ‘Well, I am very happy you are so friendly with me, because if I would be in my office, at home, and a new project would start, with an unknown foreigner to facilitate it, how would I feel?’ Actually, it is amazing.”
She believes that internationals can set an example of how things can work. However, Walentich underscores that as an international one is observed and can be tested. “You have to be true to your words, and mean what you say. Then you can achieve something.” At times, she saw the consequences of this rule not really being followed and noticed how international missions faced scandals. Walentich: “Will you select the right people and are they sufficiently trained to go abroad? One has to be aware that one does not actually belong to the new environment.”
‘Soft’ sustainability: building contacts and skills
According to Walentich, the first edition of the Western Balkans Prosecutors’ Network has been quite successful. “One joint investigation team between EU member states and a so-called third country has been successfully supported by the project.” She underlines that international cooperation cases are costly. “You need to have operational meetings, at times you have to travel in order to meet with colleagues and discuss how the case should be going. Translations can also be a really difficult and costly issue.”
Walentich adds that it takes time to set up a project like the Prosecutors’ Network and that it is often hard to make it really sustainable. “Often, once a project ends, that is it. A project should aim to build its structure or achievements into the daily work of a national administration.” While she thinks that can prove difficult, Walentich believes that the Western Balkans Prosecutors’ Network will in fact have long-lasting results.
“First of all, with the assistance of the EU prosecutors in the network and by working together on specific cases, professional ties will be established between prosecutors from the Balkan countries and Western European countries. Sometimes, our countries tend to be somewhat reluctant to work with the Balkan states, because they think it is a bit tricky and fear information might leak and so on. Through the Western Balkans Prosecutors’ Network, trust will be built and personal contacts established.” According to Walentich, it is very important to support working together on this type of criminal cases – cross border, organised crime – because it all comes down to team work. “It is something that will remain after the project has ended. To me, in the long run, this is the way for international cooperation.”
Another tangible and enduring result of the project is the improved English language skill. Walentich: “If prosecutors want to communicate directly with their counterparts in other EU member states on an operational level, they have to have a certain command of English – unless they speak each other’s native languages. Currently, the English language skills are not what they should be in all the institutions. This applies in certain countries also for the departments for international legal assistance in ministries of justice. The project therefore supports English language classes.”
Finally, the project will support internships for her Balkan colleagues in EU member states. “That is another step to increase cooperation between Balkan countries and EU member states. Trust will be built and personal contacts will be established. So in the long run, the prosecutors from the Balkans know their counterparts in EU member states and can more easily talk to them. That is something that will remain after the project has ended.”
Walentich has no plans to leave the Balkans soon. “Despite some media reports about security incidents in the region, which create an impression in Western Europe that it is not really a safe place to travel to, you can feel quite safe here. People are generally friendly and open to foreigners. And the Balkan countries have quite an amazing landscape.”