by Mato Meyer, Chief Technical Specialist, Support to Anti-Corruption Efforts in Kosovo (SAEK) project

Corruption often flourishes in times of uncertainty, and we at UNDP are well aware that the global COVID-19 pandemic is not only a health crisis – it is a crisis of governance. Governments around the world are strained to provide vital services to citizens, and unfortunately criminals are there to exploit weaknesses.

What is needed are strong institutions committed to transparency, accountability and effectiveness.

Authorities throughout the world need UNDP’s help to deliver supplies, and to digitalize public services in order to increase efficiency and transparency and strengthen good governance.

At this time, it is of utmost importance that all of those engaged in anti-money laundering are at a state of hyper alertness and ensure that funds intended for the use of health and financial recovery reach the intended recipients.

Given the restrictions on movement imposed by measures to counter the spread of COVID-19, UNDP Kosovo has provided a series of e-tools for criminal investigators to continue and further their financial crime investigations right from their desks.

Equally important is that investigators are informed of cutting-edge techniques and trends of new criminal schemes so as to quickly identify financial crime and uncover and return hidden stolen assets. To this cause, UNDP enlisted the expertise of some of Italy’s leading experts from the public and private sectors. Experts from the Bank of Italy, the Guardia di Finanza, Grant Thornton Consultants and BNL BNP Paribas shared their knowledge with their Kosovar public and private sector counterparts, as part of a series of webinars organized by UNDP and Kosovo’s Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU).

As an integral and essential part of the fight against corruption and organized crime, the fight against money laundering is an absolute priority for Kosovo and is the last condition to be met in order to obtain the liberalization of the EU Schengen visa regime. In 2018 the EU Commission had given its positive opinion, but ratification by the Member States is still needed. Indeed, many of them remain skeptical about Kosovo's effective capacity to crack down on corruption and organized crime, given the small number of successfully dealt with cases.  Although Kosovo’s legislation reflects international and European standards, its institutions still lack experience and the practical know-how essential to effectively apply it in practice.

However, anti-money laundering concerns not only the authorities, but also the wide range of private economic operators – banks, money remittances offices, insurance companies, lawyers, notaries, etc. - which are subject to detailed reporting requirements for suspicious transactions, knowledge of their customers, customer due diligence, and in general, adequate procedures for controlling the risk associated with money laundering.

Despite the clear urgency of increasing capacities to fight risks stemming from forthcoming financial aid responses to COVID-19, it is absolutely critical to follow restrictive measures limiting travel and face-to-face meetings and workshops with multiple attendees. Respecting these restrictions while being able to deliver effective training posed a challenge. The webinar format is novel to most partners in the public sector and particularly in law enforcement and the judiciary – crucial institutions in anti-corruption. At the outset it was unclear what the level of interest or participation would be. Outstripping all expectations, the intervention of the Italian experts proved exceptionally valuable and garnered widespread interest precisely because it addressed issues of common interest to a mixed public-private audience, made up of over 150 representatives of the Financial Intelligence Unit, the judiciary, the police, the customs and tax administrations, and the banking and financial sector of Kosovo.

The meetings provided an opportunity to highlight ways in which Italian and Kosovar authorities can cooperate both on cases and on sharing strategic analyses and Italy has extensive experience in retrieving hidden stolen assets, which is exactly the aim of the Kosovo’s authorities’ desire to achieve tangible results in the fight against corruption. What is of critical importance is both the private and public sector working together, that’s why we are engaged in forging private-public partnerships to tackle the common scourge of corruption.

People count on the disbursement of COVID-19 response medical and financial aid to be used fairly and appropriately. It is up to anti-money laundering officials to ensure that those that attempt to misuse this moment of crisis are brought to justice and that stolen resources are returned and provided to those who need it most. We at UNDP are here to help in this noble effort.

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