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Reporting period: 2017-04-01 to 2019-03-31

INFORM asked to what extent the harmonisation and transposition of EU rules and regulations within the national, legal, political and economic systems of Western Balkan (WB) societies lead to substantive changes in practices and procedures, or alternatively, to what extent the imported rules remain ‘empty shells’ with little influence on social life. We proceeded from the hypothesis that informal practices derive from a number of sources, including experience with superficial or incomplete reform, compensating for formal systems that do not function, and preservation of informal power in the economic and political spheres.

What we, and other researchers (e.g. Mungiu-Pippidi 2005, Richter and Wunsch 2019) noticed is that as WB countries move closer to the EU, the gap between formal and informal institutions is not getting smaller, but, in fact, ever wider. On one hand, this originates from the increasing need of these countries to harmonize their own legislation with the EU acquis communautaire and to adapt themselves to the way the EU functions. And on the other hand, it derives from the inability of the governments of these countries to substantively apply legal, political and economic solutions imposed by the process of joining the EU.

The gap between legal resolutions in the formal sphere and actual informal practice presents the risk that the process of transition and European integrations might represent yet another incomplete and abandoned attempt to transform Balkan societies. Without understanding “how these societies really work” there is a real danger that this transformation attempt will end with construction of the “modern” façades of “market” economy and political “pluralism” (fully in line with Copenhagen criteria), behind which the everyday life, still burdened with informal economy, political clientelism, ethnic tensions, gender inequalities, and social exclusion, will continue to unfold. This represents the key challenge to the European integration of Balkan societies.

What we encountered in all our studies is the existence in WB of a system of clientelist relationships on a mass scale, at the core of which stand political parties. The precondition for the immersion of the entire society in a network of clientelistic exchange is the domination of party and financial oligarchies over the executive branch of government, exercising control over the parliament, judiciary and the media, and the systematic dismantling of democratic mechanisms which are meant to provide oversight for the executive branch of government. Some people and some groups use this situation of “captured resources” to extract their profits (in public administration, healthcare, the public sector, police, courts, the educational sector…), while others develop alternative informal networks (friends, relatives, local connections, pseudo-tribal networks) to get access to resources or to self-govern their life outside of the formal institutional system. The result is the omnipresence of informal practices in the societies of the WB.

So we might say that the main source of informal practices in the societies of the WB and the basic obstacle to the European integrations of these societies is the practically limitless influence of the political field over all other social fields, for which laws often do not represent a hindrance.

The project goals were both scholarly, to advance research in the area of informality with detailed data on Southeast (SE) Europe, and practical, to provide policy recommendations to the states of the region and the EU.
The project employed mixed-method research: we carried out a survey with 6040 respondents in WB6 countries, conducted 422 semi-structured and unstructured interviews, carried out 36 months of ethnographic fieldwork, realized 11 case studies, analysed more than 2000 media releases related to informal practices in the SE European region; analysed how legal frameworks in WB countries related to the justice system and freedom of expression have been changing in the processes of EU accession, and analysed secondary data from other research studies dealing with informality in our region.

INFORM developed a comprehensive understanding of the current situation in the WB countries thus providing policy makers with the tools for closing the gap between the formal institutions and informal practices in these countries. Results of our research were published in two books (The Gap Between Rules and Practices: Informality in SE Europe and Meaningful Reform in the WB – Between Formal Institutions and Informal Practices), in 6 policy papers and 8 journal publications, and they were presented at scientific conferences in 17 countries and 15 consultative workshops with the stakeholders (3 with representatives of the DG NEAR and 12 with representatives of national ministries and offices for EU integration).

The results of INFORM represent the first comprehensive effort to assess the scope, scale, causes and consequences of tension between the formal legal sphere and the field of informal practice in the region of SE Europe. The empirical and theoretical findings provide a foundation for the generation of policies that take informality into account: understanding the mechanisms that detract from the substantive effectiveness of reform, and identifying the areas where informal practices can contribute to generating solutions to problems deriving from ineffective policy. The intersecting mixed methods provide a model for similar studies of informality elsewhere in the world. And the INFORM theoretical model guides researchers of informality to a path beyond the largely unhelpful dichotomies that are dominant in informality research.
The principal contribution of INFORM to scholarship is the generation of a theoretical and methodological approach to the study of informality that is multidimensional and sensitive to social and historical context, moving well beyond the artificial dualism of conventional theoretical approaches. The project produced the first thorough empirical picture of the size, scope, cost and causes of informality, and generated explanations for it based in the modes of exercising political and economic power. This integration of empirical scope with theoretical grounding offers a new model for the investigation of informality, which offers a model to future researchers seeking to study similar phenomena in other parts of the world.

In the area of policy, INFORM produced policy proposals based on the empirical findings of the project. These policy documents have been published, have been distributed to policymakers in the relevant fields, and have been communicated in workshops with representatives of SE European states and with the EC. Although we are unable to predict whether our policy proposals are likely to be implemented, the problems and strategies that were identified by INFORM were greeted with understanding by policymakers at both the state and European levels.

The overall goal of the research was to draw attention to meaningful social phenomena occurring on the ground that tend to be ignored in the policymaking process, where communication is frequently restricted to personnel at the higher levels of institutions. To the degree that INFORM has clarified the need for wider and deeper engagement with societies in the formulation of policy, the impact of the research can be extensive and positive.