Meaningful reform in the Western Balkans

Between formal institutions and informal practices

by Eric Gordy (Volume editor) Adnan Efendic (Volume editor)
©2019 Edited Collection 214 Pages
Open Access


This book contains collection of articles which provide policy implications related to the problem of achieving substantive reform on the basis of harmonising legislation in Western Balkan (WB) countries with the standards of the European Union (EU). While WB states have generally been successful in adopting legal reforms that make up a part of EU conditionality, many laws remain unenforced, amounting to "empty shells." In the space between law, as it is written, and practices as they are engaged in everyday life, exists a gap, characterized by informality, clientelism, and exchange often based on strong tie relationships. Some instances of informality undermine the goal of establishing rule law and contribute to corruption. Others offer valuable solutions to persistent social problems or represent traditional vehicles of social cohesion that should be promoted. The recommendations in this book seek to address both constructive and damaging instances of informality, and to identify policy measures that can help to harmonise not only legislation, but existing informal practices on the ground.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • 1. Engaging Policy to Address Gaps Between Formality and Informality in the Western Balkans (Eric Gordy / Adnan Efendic)
  • 2. Europeanisation and Institutionalisation of EU Rules in the Western Balkans (Ivan Damjanovski / Marko Kmezić)
  • 3. Implementation and Enforcement of EU Rules in South East Europe (Miran Lavrič / Reana Senjković / Rudi Klanjšek)
  • 4. The Cost of Informal Networking in the Western Balkans Region Matters! (Adnan Efendic / Alena Ledeneva)
  • 5. How to Sustainably Decrease Clientelism and Ensure Fair Political Competition in the WB? The Case for Introducing Standing Parliamentary Committees (Misha Popovikj / Borjan Gjuzelov / Jovan Bliznakovski)
  • 6. Leaders’ Meetings: Facilitating or Replacing the Formal Political Processes in the Western Balkan Countries? (Vjollca Krasniqi / Nenad Markovikj / Ilina Mangova / Enriketa Papa-Pandelejmoni / Jovan Bliznakovski)
  • 7. Informality and Everyday Life: How ‘Things Get Done’ in Contemporary Western Balkan Societies (Vjollca Krasniqi / Enriketa Papa-Pandelejmoni / Armanda Hysa / Gentiana Kera)
  • 8. Formal and Informal Institutions in Policy – Evidence from South East Europe (Mirza Mujarić / Ismet Kumalić)
  • Appendix
  • Notes on Contributors

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Eric Gordy and Adnan Efendic

1.  Engaging Policy to Address Gaps Between Formality and Informality in the Western Balkans

This introductory chapter considers the interaction between formal and informal instituitons, discussing an updated theoretical approach to this complex relationship but also touching related empirical evidence from the Western Balkans (WB) states. The approach adopted in this study is that informality cannot be a priori considered as a negative phenomenon, nor linked to the WB region, its cultures, traditions, religions or mentality of people living in this European space. This chapter and following contributions draw policy makers’ attention to the fact that legal reforms in this region, including the institutionalisation of the EU rules, need to be sensitive to context, reducing informality where it is necessary by addressing the formal deficiencies that people resolve through informal practices operating on the ground, while integrating and formalising the positive contributions that are available sometimes exclusively through informality.

Keywords: formal institutions, informal institutions, informality, Western Balkan, policy


The texts in this book are products of the Horizon 2020 research project INFORM, „Closing the gap between formal and informal institutions in the Balkans“.1 The project was carried out by a consortium of of over forty researchers at nine institutions in nine countries, including the six Western ← 7 | 8 → Balkans (WB) states that are currently at various points in the process of accession to membership in the European Union. The fundamental question posed in the research was how empirical knowledge could make a meaningful contribution to assuring that the legal and structural reforms carried out as a part of the accession process could genuinely contribute, in a substantive way, to strengthening the capacity of states to govern, to consolidating processes of democratisation, and to improving the welfare, security, and confidence of citizens of these states. Thus, the main intention of every chapter is to come up with proposals for policy measures directed towards the institutionalization of EU laws and regulations based on empirical evidence regarding the relations between formal institutions generated in the process of Europeanisation of WB states and inherited and newly developed informal institutions in the spheres of politics, economy and everyday life.

The research was guided by a perception – widely shared among the researchers in the team and repeatedly confirmed informally in private conversatins throughout the region – that while states had more or less been successful in adopting legislation that harmonises domestic law with the standards of the European Union, these legislative changes frequently amounted to „empty shells“, changes adopted exclusively at the formal level that states lack the capacity or will to implement (Dimitrova, 2010). In the face of formal resolutions that fail to regulate everyday activity, informal practices emerge, and very often as the substitutes for the formal institutional defficiencies (Efendic at al., 2011). Some of these can be described as corrupt practices, in which powerful brokers are able to make use of deficiences in the institutional setup in order to divert public agencies to private purposes. Others of them, however, reflect strategies generated by citizens to accomplish necessary work in the context of institutional arrangements that fail to function. Still others express relationships of mutual support and solidarity that are both grounded in tradition and guided by necessity.

One of the generally recongized insights that follows from this approach is that it is not productive to regard informality per se as a problem or negative phenomenon linked to the Western Balkans region, its cultures, religions, traditions or mentalities. Rather, we sensed, the problem lies in the gap between formal legal resolutions and informal practices in everyday life. This means that there exist large portions of everyday life, including meaningful portions of the political and economic spheres, that ← 8 | 9 → are not described by law. This insight takes on importance for policy (and dare we say, politics) if it is considered in the context of the historical experience of citizens in the states of Western Balkans over the past hundred years. They have confronted multiple projects, inspired from outside and bombastically announced from above, promising to fundamentally transform the institutional and social orders, which have often been short-lived, superficial, and implemented haphazardly and incompletely. Among the consequences have been popular insecurity and distrust, and these have been of longer duration than the regimes toward which they are directed. The concern is widely shared among people in the region, although it may not be apparent to EU reformers, that the current process of liberalisation and „Europeanisation“ or „Europeanunionisation“ may represent one more of these ambitious but ultimately superficial initiatives. The repeated experience is neatly summarised in a popular parody of political slogans: „Hteli smo najbolje, a ispalo je kao i obično“ („We wanted the best, but it turned out as usual“).2

The researchers on the INFORM project were guided by the belief that empirical knowledge about the gap between formality and informality could contribute to developing policy proposals that could be useful in addressing the risk that legal and structural forms could appear comprehensive but turn out meaningless, prolonging the experience of states that fail to function, and that experience chronic crises of legitimacy. Although nearly everybody, from international experts to participants in coffee shop conversation, recognises the gap on which our research concentrates, this project represents the first effort to gain systematic and region-wide knowledge about its scope, character, and meaning. The contributions in this volume elaborate the policy proposals that derive from the findings of our research, covering the selected topics in the speheres of politics, economics and everyday life. The intention of this book is not to cover all possible examples that appear on the ground, but some of the most representative recongized by the researchers comming from these three fields. ← 9 | 10 →

A new theoretical approach to formality and informality

Core concern motivating the research is the perception that in Western Balkans (including two EU countries from the region in our sample, Slovenia and Croatia), the accelerated pace of EU accession has contributed to a rush in adoption of legislative reforms proposed solely for the purpose of compliance with the acquis communautaire, and frequently passed through the parliament without debate or substantive consideration. We have referred to these, as have others, as „empty shells“, although other labels have been suggested, among them „fabricating reforms“ and „reform simulation“ (e.g. Dimitrova, 2010; Đinđić and Bajić, 2018). They describe a situation in which legal resolutions are adopted by states which have neither the intention nor the capacity to implement them. Similar to the way that Verdery (1996) described a formally socialist economic system masking feudalist and capitalist practices on the ground, the adoption of liberal policy in the post-socialist period is marked by a disjunction between the world as it is described by official policy and the world that is confronted by citizens in their everyday experience. This results in a gap between formal and informal practices, which appears to be growing as states hurry to generate legal and regulatory frameworks that do not respond to actual conditions.


ISBN (Softcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2019 (January)
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. 214 pp., 7 tables, 4 graphs

Biographical notes

Eric Gordy (Volume editor) Adnan Efendic (Volume editor)

Eric Gordy is Professor of Political and Cultural Sociology at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London. His research concentrates on everyday life, political culture, and social and cultural dynamics in the states of Southeast Europe. Adnan Efendic is Associate Professor of Economics at the School of Economics and Business, University of Sarajevo. His research focuses on the effects of formal and informal institutions in economics, on migration and development, with particular focus on the Western Balkans.


Title: Meaningful reform in the Western Balkans