If you raise the subject of the European Union's Balkan expansion plans with officials in Brussels, it does not take long before talk turns to corruption and organised crime. These scourges are an important cause of apprehension in members of the 27-nation bloc, especially richer western ones, on accelerating the pace of enlargement.
The root of the matter lies in the EU's decision to admit Bulgaria and Romania in 2007, in spite of well founded suspicions that both governments were too weak or reluctant to tackle problems stemming from decades of poverty and arbitrary state authority under communism. The experience has been so disillusioning that the EU has raised the bar for future Balkan entrants. "The lesson . . . is that the process has to be rigorous if it is to be successful overall," says Rosa Balfour of the Brussels-based European Policy Centre.
In July 2008 the European Commission, having lost patience with Bulgaria, took the unprecedented step of suspending hundreds of millions of euros in aid and banning two state agencies from receiving EU funds. Matters improved somewhat after prime minister Boyko Borissov took office in July on a platform of cracking down on corruption. But the murder last week of a radio presenter who wrote about his country's powerful crime groups - and who himself boasted of connections to gangsters - was a reminder that the problem refuses to go away. There have been more than 150 gangland killings in Bulgaria since 2001 but no convictions.
As for Romania, EU officials praise new criminal and civil codes but say the judiciary should be allowed to pursue its anti- corruption work more independently.
Brussels detects some progress in Balkan countries hoping to jointhis decade but is taking a cautious line nonetheless. In its latest report on Serbia, which applied last month, the Commission said in October: "The law enforcement authorities have shown higher commitment to fighting corruption, leading to the arrests of a number of suspects."
However, the Commission added: "Final convictions in corruption cases are rare. Sustained efforts are needed in the fight against organised crime and to ensure the independence, accountability and efficiency of the judicial system."
For some Balkan citizens, the lofty tone smacks of hypocrisy, given that corruption is hardly unknown in some of the EU's biggest and oldest countries.
It is a fair point but no excuse for foot-dragging, says Jana Mittermaier, head of the Brussels office of Transparency International, the global anti-corruption watchdog. "Joining the EU is not a magic bullet against corruption. We recommend anti-corruption progress reports for all future and even current EU member states."