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BELGRADE (Reuters) - A flurry of corruption probes in the Balkans may give the impression officials are finally tackling of the scourge of the region but experience suggests many of the cases will collapse short of a criminal conviction.
Corruption has flourished in the Balkans since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s and collapse of Communism. It continues to plague the region and has slowed progress toward eventual European Union membership.
"The conviction rate is low, invariably low," said Petrus van Duyne, a professor specialising in the study of corruption at the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands.
In the latest case, Albania's Deputy Prime Minister Ilir Meta on Wednesday relinquished his immunity from prosecution to allow an investigation of corruption allegations spurred by a conversation filmed by a former minister from his own party.
Albania's prime minister, who needs Meta's party to continue his coalition government, has rallied behind his deputy and called the video evidence amateurish.
In most Balkan countries, because of "prevailing nepotism and a low degree of independence of the courts ... you must be a very brave judge to convict an important person," van Duyne said.
For an official to be punished, "you must be stupid or you must have lost your political allies -- then you have a higher chance of getting convicted."
Two prior high-profile Albanian cases fizzled without convictions, and both men remain government ministers.
Other officials are under fire across the emerging Balkans, where all the former Communist countries aspire to join the EU, which has called for an end to the culture of impunity widespread in Balkans.
An explosive Council of Europe report last month alleged that Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, a leader of Kosovo's late 1990s independence war against Serbia, had headed a mafia-style organised crime ring.
Italian prosecutors in the past have sought the arrest of Milo Djukanovic, Montenegro's dominant politician over the past two decades, on tobacco smuggling and money-laundering charges.
EU pressure on corruption may ultimately force would-be members to take a tougher stance. For example, Croatia, which hopes to join the EU by early 2013, has convicted a former deputy prime minister and defence minister.
Croatia's former Prime Minister Ivo Sanader was arrested last month in Austria on a Croatian warrant in a corruption probe. Sanader has denied allegations of wrongdoing.
Earlier last year Kosovo's central bank governor was arrested on corruption charges.
Djukanovic stepped down last month saying finance minister Igor Luksic would be best placed to guide Montenegro to EU membership.
"The fight against corruption has been for years merely a formally proclaimed goal," said Nikola Kristic, head of Transparency International in Croatia. "In 2010 and this year it has turned into an unavoidable priority under pressure of the negotiations with the EU."
Last month EU leaders granted Montenegro candidate status, but delayed the start of talks citing corruption among other issues. Other countries face similiar EU scrutiny.
The issue also deters badly needed foreign investment in a region hard hit by the world financial crisis.
"There will be no major inflow of foreign investments until the state resolves the problem of corruption," said Danilo Sukovic, a member of Serbia's Anti-Corruption Council.
In a recent letter addressed to Serbia's president, the council warned it had evidence that some investors "were subjected to pressures to abandon their businesses or were denied options to purchase (Serbian) companies."
Professor Duyne has studied corruption in Serbia by following up what happened in the years after cases were first announced, and he remains sceptical about progress.
"For political reasons they (the European Union) may conclude in the future...that Croatia, Serbia and others have made tremendous steps forward," he said. "I'd say that most Balkan countries are not even at the horizon of entering as far as corruption is concerned."
"Even if functionaries are not corrupt, many of those who should be fighting corruption remain sitting on their hands until they are told to do something. There is no initiative, little anticipation or looking forward."
Additional reporting by Igor Ilic in Zagreb, Benet Koleka in Tirana, Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall and Peter Graff