European Western Balkans

Serbia’s troubles with Chapter 23: “Fragile” institutions incapable of fighting corruption

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BELGRADE – The harsh criticism that was reiterated by the EU Commission in the Country Report 2019 for Serbia regarding the anti-corruption campaign, one the greatest tasks in the Chapter 23 in the EU accession talks, is interpreted by the experts in law and by the experts in the EU integration process as the clear sign of the “fragility” of the institutions in our country, including the political interference in the judiciary.

At the same time, some of these experts state for the EWB that there is also a need for the establishment of the more credible system of monitoring and punishing by the Brussels’ institutions for Serbia and other EU candidate countries in this domain, which is very important, since corruption is the pervasive social “disease”.

Criticism by Brussels

The EU Commission in the Country Report 2019, published in May, states that Serbia has some level of preparation in the fight against corruption. It is emphasized that “limited progress has been made”. “The revised Law on the prevention of corruption was adopted … The revisions refer to the organization and jurisdiction of government authorities in suppression of organized crime, terrorism and corruption, as well as to the confiscation of the criminal assets… The revisions need to comply with the acquis, international agreements and GRECO recommendations…”

According to the EU Commission, “law enforcement and judicial authorities still need to establish a credible track record of operationally independent prosecutions and finalized high-level corruption cases” – overall, corruption is prevalent in many areas and remains an issue of concern”.

Too much talk, too little action

Johanna Deimel, independent analyst on Balkan affairs from Germany, states for EWB that corruption is a phenomenon, which, depending on the degree, indicates whether a country has a functional rule of law and a leadership dedicated to address the problem not only on paper but in effective counter-measures instead.

“This is the first problem Serbia faces: lip service but almost no (and if only cosmetic) action. The lack of political will leads to another issue, which is large-scale of systematic state capture that is the main trigger for widespread corruption in Serbia. This goes from financing of political parties, to public companies, old boy’s networks, in-transparent cash flows by tycoons, who are feeding the budget and private pockets, and to bribing political representatives top-down to the local level”, Deimel says.

According to Deimel, Serbia’s public procurement sector is highly problematic, as “the corruption is high, in particular with regards to governmental contracts”. At the same time, she emphasizes that “corruption has penetrated Serbia’s society and is a daily life experience for Serbia’s citizens in public administration, education and healthcare”.

“Corruption is practically institutionalized”, Johanna Deimel stresses.

Promotion of loyal employees

Jovana Marović, Executive Director of the Politikon Network, a think tank based in Podgorica, states for EWB that “in spite of the numerous legal reforms which have been implemented in Serbia, in order to comply with the acquis in the EU accession process, the scope and impact of these activities on the fight against corruption are limited”.

“The problem partly refers to the quality of the laws which have been adopted, but particularly to the lack of the implementation of these laws. The best solutions cannot produce results in practice if they are not implemented coherently, if all the citizens are not equal before the law, which brings us back to the rule of law as the precondition for all reforms, and there is the unsatisfactory level of the functioning of the rule of law in all parts of this region. The recently published EU Commission Country Report 2019 shows that Serbia has made some limited progress in the fight against corruption in 2018. However, there are no significant results regarding the prevention of corruption, particularly in the cases of high-level corruption and organized crime, including money laundering”, she emphasizes.

Marović explains  that “using the language of the EU Commission” – corruption is  prevalent in  many areas and remains an issue of concern, and the  EU Commission emphasizes that the public procurement sector, infrastructure construction projects, health system, education and public enterprises are particularly “corruption-prone” areas, and that the confiscation of criminal assets  is still not the priority  in Serbia.

Jovana Marović also points to the public survey done by  CeSID, within the framework of the USAID’s Government Accountability Initiative,  which shows that 50 percent of the male and female citizens of Serbia think that corruption is widespread in Serbia, and that the corruption is particularly prevalent in health sector.

“Such a perception implies that male and female citizens have little trust in state institutions. For instance, the public believes that the police are highly politicized and corrupt. In Serbia, there is a high pressure of the executive branch of power on the judiciary, which is also pointed by the Transparency International. This is one of the main reasons why the fight against corruption is not efficient. In Serbia, as well in Montenegro, the president abuses his powers, set by the Constitution, which is also one of the causes of the disturbed system of control and balance of power”, Marović explains.

Jovana Marović says that the promotion of the loyal employees to the managerial posts and the lack of accountability for the frequent legal abuses are “everyday phenomena”.

“The effective fight against corruption is not (merely) the condition which Serbia should meet in order to join the EU, but, more importantly, it is needed in order to establish the democratic institutions and to increase the public trust in these institutions. Unfortunately, it is not among the top priorities of the ruling party in Serbia. Thus, the fight against corruption stagnates in Serbia”, Marović observes.

Executive director of the Politikon Network thinks that the ruling elites in the Balkans are not determined to root out corruption, “on the contrary – they consider such a possibility as contrary to their interests and as the breaking of the “traditional” political leverages.

“In the Country Report 2019 the EU Commission emphasizes that the political will is necessary in order to adequately tackle the numerous issues and to meet numerous preconditions for the efficient fight against corruption, including the improved cooperation and data exchange among the institutions. However, the EU, which pointed last year to the wide-spread corruption at all levels and to the connection between the state authorities and the organized criminal groups in the Western Balkans in the document “A credible enlargement perspective for and enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans”, has not yet offered the comprehensive mechanisms, which would help in the suppression of such practices”, Jovana Marović concludes.

“Legal ambiguity” and the problem of restitution

The experts in law, who prefer to speak off the record, state that there are following “contributing factors” to the high level of corruption in Serbia: “legal ambiguity” – which causes great troubles to the potential investors, whereas it “enables the public administration to treat the potential investors in an arbitrary manner and to bribe them”; “low wages in the domains which are particularly “prone” to corruption, such as health sector and public administration”; “legal malpractice”; “lack of judicial independence, i.e. the dependence of judiciary on the ruling party”.

The legal experts mention the land restitution as one of domain where corruption “flourishes”. In this context, they emphasize that “the property, worth billions of euros”, has been returned and is yet to be returned to the citizens of Serbia, but no one knows in which sequence it is being returned”.

“The land restitution is one of the main sources of corruption in Serbia. For instance, if someone is waiting for the return of the 100 hectares of arable land, and if it is not done today, although it is possible to be done without delay, but in five years, the owners will lose hundreds of thousands of euros, depending on the plants which they would grow, the land management and similar factors…  Under these circumstances, corruption flourishes. Therefore, in the well-functioning and “normal” society, the establishment of the “restitution calendar” must be the first step made by the Agency for Restitution”, the legal experts explain.

Controversial law

The recently adopted Law on Health Care in Serbia enables the medical workers to receive “non-cash” gifts, the individual value of which does not exceed 462 euros, from their patients. Thereby, the “awards” given to the medical staff by their patients have been stopped treating as corruption, but the medical staff is still prohibited from asking for the money or receive the money by the patients.

The Ministry of Health explained to the media that the new law is based on the recommendation by the Anti-Corruption Agency, whereas the Association called “Doctors against Corruption” considers that in this way the “bribes have been legalized” and that the value of the non-material gifts is “senseless”.

What should be done?

The EU Commission states that Serbia in the short term should do the following things regarding the fight against corruption:

– Improve its track record on investigations, indictments and final convictions in high level  corruption cases, including the seizure and confiscation of criminal assets;

– Urgently implement legislation on the Anti-Corruption Agency in order to strengthen the Agency’s role as a key institution in a more effective fight against corruption;

– Assess the anti-corruption policy in order to adopt a new ambitious strategy and action plan.

This article is published within the project “Support to independent reporting on Serbia’s EU integration process with focus on the Chapters 23 and 24”, implemented in cooperation with EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy and supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic. The views expressed in this article do not represent those of the EUROPEUM Institute or those of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic.

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