The research project titled “Closing the Gap Between Formal and Informal Institutions in the Balkans” was realized from 2016 to 2019 in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo, Albania, Croatia and Slovenia with the financial support the European Commission as part of the Horizon 2020 program. The project was realized by the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (UCL SSEES – Great Britain), the Center for Empirical Cultural Studies of South-East Europe  (CESK – Serbia), the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Research (Croatia), the Department of Sociology, University of Maribor (Slovenia), the Center for Intradisciplinary Social Applied Research (CISAR – B&H), the Institute for Democracy “Societas Civilis” Skopje (Macedonia), the Center for Historical and Anthropological Research (Albania); Social Research Kosova (Kosovo) and Rīga Stradiņš University (Latvia). The research coordinator was professor Eric Gordy, PhD, from the UCL SSEES.

The paradox which has inspired the research lies in the fact that as the states of the Western Balkans approach EU membership, the gap between formal rules and informal practices, instead of rapidly decreasing, is on the contrary, increasing. This is, on the one hand, a consequence of pressure that these countries are under to harmonize their own legislation with the EU acquis communautaire, and on the other, their inability to apply these laws under conditions of a devastating economic crisis, and still not quite reduced political and war tensions.

A special problem, which we have attempted to solve in our project, is reflected in the fact that theory and practice of Europeanization remain at the level of what the governments of the candidate countries for EU membership are doing. What is happening at the lower levels – in society – where actually the decisions are being made as to whether these processes will be successful remains a secret for these approaches. However, without understanding “how these societies actually function” there is a serious risk of these attempts at a transformation of the societies of the Balkans ending up as a construction of the “modern” façades of the “market economy” and “political pluralism” fully in line with Copenhagen criteria, behind which everyday life will continue, unburdened by informal economy, political clientelism, ethnic tension, gender inequality and social exclusion.

Accordingly, our main research question was to what extent the harmonization and transposition of EU rules and regulations within the national legal, political and economic systems of the countries of the Western Balkans (and more broadly South-East Europe) lead to substantive changes in social practices and procedures in these countries, or alternatively, to what extent the imported rules remain “empty shells” with little influence in social life.  Thus the key theoretical and practical contribution of our project is reflected precisely in the study of the social aspects of the process of EU integrations  – ways in which the process of institutional changes occurs, the obstacles it encounters, the effects it causes, and the study of the changes in the everyday activities of citizens and organizations in the societies of the region.

From a methodological point of view, INFORM represented an exceptionally complex research which relied on a multitude of quantitative and qualitative methods for compiling and analyzing data. During the project, a survey questionnaire was carried out on a sample of 6040 respondents; in addition to 250 semi-structured interviews, 36 months of ethnographic work, 12 case studies, the content analysis of more than 1000 media reports and legal documents in the field of justice and the media.

During the realization of the project, the following international conferences, workshops and seminars were organized:

  • Workshop: Formal and informal – How to Bridge the Gap, June 27-28, 2016, Novi Sad
  • Opening INFORM conference, September 29 – October 1, 2016, London
  • Workshop: Research of the informal, October 28-30, Tirana
  • Methodological workshop – survey research, April 6-9, 2017, Maribor
  • Methodological workshop – ethnography and interviews, September 29-30, 2017, Vis
  • Closing INFORM conference, February 8, 2019, Sarajevo

Two studies were prepared as part of the project: “The Gap between Rules and Practices: Informality in South-East Europe” (which records the theoretical and empirical results of the project) and “Meaningful reform in the Western Balkans between formal institutions and informal practices” (which contains recommendations in the domain of public policy).