Jelena has three children. The costs of food, school, and extracurricular activities reduce their household budget at the end of the month to close to zero – at best. Three years ago, she discovered that in Požarevac, where she lives with her family, parents with three or more children can get a card that offers discounts at sports clubs, hairdressers, and shops.
These are so-called “proud” cards that cities and municipalities across Serbia have been offering to their residents for the last five years.
However, these cards are not issued by local governments, but by the association Tri Plus from Čačak, headed by former councilor Vladica Gavrilović.
At least 24 cities and municipalities in Serbia have paid roughly 27 million RSD to this association since 2018. There is no competition for this, but local governments pay the funds directly to the association and then do not even monitor how it is spent.
Nebojša Rančić, a lawyer who has worked with local self-governments for years and helped them to become more transparent, believes that this type of system for allocating funds excludes other associations that deal with supporting families.
“They were not given the opportunity to compete through a public competition, with their own proposals and ideas.”
Instead, he believes, a kind of monopoly was created.
People have complained on social media that the card was not recognized by some companies and that they did not receive the expected discounts. Jelena is among those who encountered this kind of problem. She tried to enroll her daughter in a gymnastics club in Požarevac, for which the association’s website claimed that the membership fee was free with the card, but in fact it was not. She did not want her full name to be published.
She complained to the association itself, which promised her that they would find out what the problem was. However, with the spread of the coronavirus, everything was briefly closed down, including sports clubs. When that was over, she called them again. Their response was the same.
“I would like to see this resolved.”
Millions without coverage
The example of Gornji Milanovac paints a good picture of how the system works.
In 2018, the Tri Plus association invited them to be their members. After that, Dejan Kovačević, the president of the municipality, asked businessmen, public companies and sports clubs to provide some privileges or discounts for cardholders.
The letter he sent to them stated: “We invite you to support this campaign with your contribution and demonstrate the goodwill to come together in order to help multi-member families who are responsible for the demographic development of our municipality and our country.”
After this, the Municipality officially joined the association. Membership costs 6 RSD per resident of the municipality or city per year, which in the case of Gornji Milanovac amounts to slightly more than 266,000 RSD.
This payment principle also means that the biggest cities pay more. For example, Niš pays 1.5 million RSD each year. Over two years ago in Belgrade, the then Deputy Mayor Goran Vesić handed out these cards. The association thanked him because “he accepted all our proposals, even the impossible, and found a way to implement it”. Belgrade officials have not disclosed to CINS how much money they allocate, but if they pay the same as others, it would mean that this costs the city nearly 10 million RSD annually.
The association also receives funding from poorer places. Lebane, Petrovac na Mlavi and Malo Crniće are recognized by the state as “underdeveloped” municipalities, so a special ministry is tasked with helping them in their development. However, that did not prevent them from paying the association Tri Plus just under 900,000 RSD over three years.
The local governments themselves call various companies and ask them to provide a discount, then inform their residents to apply if they wish, and to collect their cards. The association prints them. It is not known what exactly the money provided by municipalities and cities is intended for, because as some of them told us, the association is not obliged to justify the spending.
Tara Petrović from Civic Initiatives says that the procedure by which associations receive funds through public competitions is often riddled with flaws, but does ensure some level of transparency.
“There is a public call with listed conditions, you can see who has applied, who has received funds and in what amount, but all this is outside any official channels. (…) To me, this system acts as a mechanism for extracting budget funds.”
The founders of the Tri Plus association are the former councilor of New Serbia (Nova Srbija) in Čačak Vladica Gavrilović and his wife Radmila, as well as their party colleague Daliborka Nestorović. Gavrilović and Nestorović left the party in May 2018. Velimir Ilić, the president of New Serbia, has told CINS that Gavrilović told him that he wanted to devote himself to the association and be “an important factor in Serbia”. Just a few months before that, the City of Čačak signed a contract with Tri Plus, thereby paying this association around 740,000 RSD for the printing of cards. From that year, cities and municipalities in Serbia started with payments to Gavrilović’s association.
Gavrilović has told CINS in an interview that they spend most of the money on trips around Serbia in order to conclude contracts with companies and institutions that provide discounts. He also says that they hire people as drivers.
According to him, they are not financed through public competitions because they would then no longer be independent. He did not explain what the exact difference would be, since the competitions would be announced by the institutions from which they already receive funding for their work.
Throughout the duration of the interview in the premises of this association in Čačak, Gavrilović was impolite and repeatedly avoided answering questions. He accused CINS journalists, whom he was filming with a camera during the interview, of having been “instructed” and of engaging in “vengeful” journalism.
In addition, the local self-governments from whom CINS requested information told him about what we were doing back in September.
Financial aid or (in)security
Parents with three children already receive financial aid from the state.
In addition to the 100,000 RSD lump sum they receive upon a child’s birth, they also receive a monthly benefit for the next ten years, which currently amounts to around 13,000 RSD. In addition, some receive additional financial assistance at their local level, depending on the budget of the municipality or city. Discounts like those offered by the Tri Plus association should be an addition to all this.
However, Tatjana Macura from the association Moms are the Law (Mame su zakon) believes that parents with three children need security when it comes to work after childbirth.
“They [mothers] need be sure that they can go back to work, that they won’t get fired after an employer grabs his head and says ‘oh, it’s that mother of three’.”
Nebojša Rančić says that there is no question that these families should receive aid, but that how this idea was implemented in the case of the Tri Plus association is questionable.
“The actual number of users should be checked, as well as what their needs are, and a public discussion needs to be held on this topic,” Rančić says, adding that “a public competition should be announced based on transparent criteria, where the association, as well as others, will be able to apply with ideas on how to help a family with three or more children”.
Parents who have the “proud” card, and with whom CINS journalists spoke, have had varying experiences. Some have used it, others have not, while some do not find it useful.
Slađana Ranđelović, also from Požarevac, says that her children are already provided with free snacks and books, so they didn’t get anything special with the card. In September, she was still waiting to receive her card for this year. As she explained, she managed to get discounts in some places, but not everywhere – it depends on the place itself.
Jelena from Požarevac says that almost three years later, her problem with the gymnastics membership fee has been resolved, but not in the way she had hoped.
The information on the website of the Tri Plus association has been changed, where it says that a 20% discount is granted for new gymnasts. The club has told CINS that this was always the agreement – there was never a free membership fee.
Changes on the website of the association Tri Plus
Jelena believes that the problem is that for three years, something was written there that was not true.
“It makes no sense to advertise it for years without it being valid.”
Vladica Gavrilović first told CINS journalists that the confusion was caused due to “fraud” by the club, but later his colleague Daliborka said that the discount had always been 20% and that the journalists mixed up the discounts. However, the association’s website history reveals that it had stated that registration with the card was free.
Jelena did not enroll her daughter in the gymnastics club. She says that, at the moment, she cannot afford it.
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