This article was originally published in Serbian.
Yet another year is coming to an end and Serbia does not have a Strategy for the fight against corruption. It is an important document that should “map” the weak points in the system and define the measures that the state will use to fight corruption.
The last Strategy in this field in Serbia was adopted for the period from 2013 to 2018, and calls of the European Commission for drafting and adopting a new Strategy have been repeating from report to report on Serbia for years.
In the meantime, Serbian society was “shaken” by numerous affairs. Jovanjica, Krušik, and the affair of illegal construction in the Belgrade municipality of Palilula (the case in which the then president of this municipality, Aleksandar Jovičić, was arrested) are just some of them. The resolution of these cases, however, is not at a satisfactory level. The European Commission has been emphasizing for years that it is necessary for Serbia to show better results in the fight against high level corruption.
The connection between specific corruption events and the Strategy is only indirect, assesses Nemanja Nenadić, Program Director of Transparency Serbia, for European Western Balkans. On the other hand, he points out that the future Strategy and its Action Plan should be based on previous experience.
“All those discovered cases of corruption are very valuable for the formulation of measures in the Strategy. And that is one of the sources on which the Strategy should be drawn up – to see what made it possible for corruption to occur and then foresee measures to prevent it from occurring in the future,” Nenadić says.
The strategy outlines the country’s fundamental direction in the fight against corruption, explains Jovana Spremo, advisor for European integration at YUCOM. She points out that every country, especially a country that is a candidate for membership in the European Union, must have a clear strategic framework when it comes to this area. That is why, she says, the adoption of the Strategy is necessary.
“In this way, such a strategic document will not only be drawn up but coordination will also be arranged between certain state bodies and services that have the fight against corruption under their jurisdiction – to know who is responsible for which part”.
Spremo notes that since last year, in reports of the European Commission, there has been an insistence on a comprehensive National Strategy for the fight against corruption, most likely for the reason that there has been no visible progress in this area for many years.
Although Serbia has been without a Strategy for years, Jovan Nicić, Director of Prospector, a consultancy for the development of anti-corruption policies, recalls that in recent years, several documents have been adopted that included measures and activities in the field of fighting corruption or that served to “prepare the ground” for the creation of a new strategic document.
Thus, the Action Plan for Chapter 23 from 2016, which also included a subchapter dedicated to the fight against corruption, explains Nicić, was revised in 2020, and then Serbia decided, before drafting the new Strategy, to adopt an Operational Plan for the prevention of corruption in areas of special risk – customs, local self-government, privatization, public procurement, and the police, but also special operational plans for the fight against corruption in the areas of health, taxes, and education.
Strategy out of focus, political will questionable
Nicić reminds that the Government adopted the aforementioned document in September 2021 and that a specific part is dedicated to the activities that should be carried out by the end of this year in order to adequately prepare the future Strategy and the accompanying Action Plan.
“However, not much has been done on this issue since the adoption of this plan until today. For example, it is planned that the working group for the development of the new National Strategy will start its work in the first quarter of 2022, which has not yet happened,” explains Nicić.
By the way, it can often be heard by representatives of the authorities that Serbia is determined to tackle corruption. Thus, current president, Aleksandar Vučić, even when he was prime minister, declared that the fight against corruption must be a permanent mission of the society.
“What is the essence – I think that society’s attention must be on zero tolerance, that we equally condemn those who will take money for the enrollment of a child, as well as those others who took hundreds of millions from state banks by bribing politicians and directors,” said Vučič in 2014, as reported by Tanjug.
Recently, the Minister of Justice, Maja Popović, stated that the prevention and elimination of corruption is a firm commitment of our state. In her speech at the conference on the occasion of international anti-corruption day, which is celebrated every December 9, she also mentioned the preparation of the National Strategy, saying that, along with the accompanying Action Plan, it is the most significant undertaking in the field of anti-corruption that the Ministry is currently working on.
However, the process of working on this document is lagging behind.
Nenadić sees the delay of the Strategy as an indication of how little importance the Government of Serbia currently attaches to the fight against corruption.
“If it gave it more importance, then the Strategy would have been adopted at least for promotional and propaganda reasons, if not for reasons of real will. Secondly, when we talk about political will, it would be really strange if the Strategy was adopted without seeing why the previous one, which was adopted with great fanfare in 2013, did not produce better results”, explains Nenadić.
Miroslav Milićević, Vice-President of the Council for the fight against corruption, is of a similar opinion, saying that apart from declaratively, the development of the Strategy was not a priority to which adequate attention was paid.
“Given that the success of the fight against corruption did not yield satisfactory results, there was a belief that this is just another formal document whose scope depends not on its content but on political will.” There wasn’t enough enthusiasm,” Milićević believes.
On the other hand, Jovan Nicić assumes that the elections, and the formation of the new Government, slowed down this process.
“Certainly, this delay affects how the public in Serbia perceives the state’s readiness to fight corruption,” says Nicić.
What is expected from the new Strategy?
The previous Strategy for the fight against corruption did not produce the expected results.
“The National Strategy and the Action Plan have foreseen a number of significant interventions, which, if fully implemented, could bring significant progress in the fight against corruption”, i is assessed in the Baseline for the development of the Operational Plan for the prevention of corruption in areas of special risk. It is a document with the purpose to point out the lessons learned from earlier processes of drafting, implementing, and monitoring the implementation of strategic documents in this area.
Miroslav Milićević assesses that the previous strategies, of which there were two in total, both remained a dead letter.
“The previous Strategy is an extensive document, it covers many areas and points to many important risks of corruption. If the Strategy did not produce the results that were expected, one should ask why it happened, because otherwise, the new Strategy may become just a document that is only applied in some parts,” Milićević believes.
It is necessary, he says, for the new Strategy to be based on real knowledge about corruption in the society. In addition, he adds that it should contain solutions and activities that can be implemented in practice.
Nenadić points out that it is important that the new Strategy contains an overview of the situation, the goals that need to be achieved, and the way to reach their realization in a certain long-term period. This, he adds, was not done properly in earlier strategies.
“If we were to look at what is happening in practice, I think we could easily conclude that some ways and actions of state authorities carry enormous risks of corruption and that those same authorities do not treat them as a problem at all, but present them as an excellent move. For example, the contracting of large infrastructure works directly and without any competition – this is something that we have as a problem that is not treated as such in any domestic document, nor are solutions sought for it,” says Nenadić.
He believes that the widest possible range of institutions should be involved in its preparation and that it should be passed by the Assembly and not by the Government.
“The strategy should also oblige authorities that are not part of the executiv. Previous Strategy was also adopted by the Assembly, but this implies that the Assembly itself should take the Strategy it adopted seriously and discuss its effects every year.”
In addition to considering the implementation report, Jovan Nicić says that the National Assembly could also organize public hearings on various topics related to the implementation of the Strategy, in which, in addition to representatives of relevant institutions, representatives of civil society organizations, the media, and the economic sector would participate in the discussion.
“The result of the public hearings could be the initiation of a procedure for changing the legal solutions that caused problems in practice.”
He points out that it would be important for the Strategy to include areas and issues identified by independent institutions and civil society organizations in their reports and research. It should also include the areas and issues that the European Commission mentions in its reports on Serbia’s progress as requiring strategic intervention in the context of preventing and fighting corruption.
Nicić also says that if the recommendations from the Basic Principles, based on the lessons learned, are implemented, there is a chance that we will get a Strategy whose implementation will be at a higher level than in previous strategic documents.
When the Strategy is adopted one day, Nenadić emphasizes the importance of the will to implement it. It is still unknown how it will be written and what solutions it will contain, but he points out a danger that this strategic document could align with the current readiness of state authorities to do something. Thus, it will be reduced to a list of measures that would be implemented regardless of whether the Strategy will be adopted or not.
He also expresses concerns that the Strategy will be only a formal, and not an essential document.
“This fear always exists for every strategic act, regardless of whether it is the fight against corruption or something else. It has been shown in many cases that these fears are well-founded. Previous experience shows that”, Nenadić believes.
This article is published within the project “Supporting media freedom in Serbia in relation to the EU accession process”, 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.