“The two of us were sitting and a third person was also there. And I said, ‘Here, I want to give 800 EUR, but I can’t give 800 EUR, only a smaller amount is allowed. Here you go, take the money, please make payment for our party.”
This is how Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić tried in 2017 to clear up doubts regarding donations to the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). Namely, as BIRN has reported, several donors stated that they received money from SNS during the elections that year, and then paid it to the party’s account under their own name, concealing its origin. In the same year, the Anti-Corruption Agency submitted a report to the Higher Public Prosecutor’s Office in Belgrade, in which it expresses suspicion that SNS used a similar funding scheme for the 2014 election campaign.
Five years later, the Higher Public Prosecutor’s Office decided that there were no grounds to initiate criminal proceedings for any of the acts from the Agency‘s report. After making the case no longer confidential, the Prosecutor’s Office cited in a statement published on its website on May 11 that there were several cases in which persons working in public institutions or local self-governments gave money to party members in envelopes to pay into the party’s account. Although it could be said that there was a violation of the Law on Financing Political Activities, as cited in the statement, the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution and for initiating misdemeanor proceedings expired.
“We have the illusion that there are mechanisms for control and punishment, but in fact they are not really like that,” says Nemanja Nenadić from Transparency Serbia.
The Prosecutor’s Office stated that this was not a criminal act of money laundering because, according to court practice, it would be necessary for the money to come from a criminal act for which there is a final court verdict, which was not the case here.
Sead Spahović, a lawyer and former deputy in two public prosecutor’s offices, says that the statement does not reveal what evidence was collected during those five years, or why the procedure was confidential.
He also says that the source of law in Serbia is not court practice but “the Constitution, laws, and rules of international law”.
“I am not familiar with any money laundering case pursued by the Prosecutor’s Office in which the pre-criminal procedure contains a final predicate offense (author’s note: criminal offense from which the ‘laundered’ money originated). In other words, all the cases I know of are based on prosecutorial investigations and indictments without this precondition.”
This is just one of the examples in the last 10 years where the revelations about possible abuses in the financing of the ruling SNS have not been fully investigated. CINS’s investigation shows how the cases pointed out by the Anti-Corruption Agency “collapsed”, and how one of the ruling party’s donors was eventually appointed to head it.
“We have the illusion that there are mechanisms for control and punishment, but in fact they are not really like that… In practice, when some of the biggest, most obvious cases of violations of the law go unpunished, then we cannot say that this control, i.e. punishment, is working,” Nemanja Nenadić from Transparency Serbia told CINS.
Police report made just to satisfy requirements
One event from 2016 parliamentary elections campaign can be described in one word – bizarre.
As Cenzolovka previously wrote, Happy Television, at the request of a certain Milan Perić and his non-existent agency MP Media, broadcasted SNS advertising messages for 20 days. When the time came to pay for this, Happy failed to reach Perić, and it is not known if that is even his real name, while SNS denied having anything to do with it, so Happy got “swindled” for around 0.5 million EUR.
The Anti-Corruption Agency prepared a report on everything and forwarded it to the Third Public Prosecutor’s Office in Belgrade, which then asked the police to collect information. However, the police stated that they could not find out who the perpetrator was.
“Where there is a strong influence of politics, the police never do their job formally and professionally to the end”, says Siniša Janković, a retired police inspector.
CINS journalists came across a report that the police submitted to the prosecutor’s office. In it, on two pages, based on the statement of the director of Happy, Aleksandra Krstić, it is explained what happened. In addition, they state that the police searched the website of the Serbian Business Registers Agency, but did not find a company called MP Media, and they could not find the IP addresses from which the email address was made and from which messages were sent to Happy.
The police, while checking in their information register, determined that there was a large number of persons with the name Milan Perić, but they could not identify who it was because they could not confirm with certainty that this was the person’s name.
Apart from the director of Happy, the police took no other statements, not even from SNS officials. As for the courier who brought SNS advertising messages to Happy’s address, the police only mention in the report that Aleksandra Krstić does not know his name.
Retired police inspector Siniša Janković told CINS that the police should also have looked into the person who brought the video materials, spoken to the television’s employees, checked the cameras and talked to the officials from the party.
“Where there is a strong influence of politics, the police never do their job formally and professionally to the end. It is done in such a way as to satisfy requirements, but it is not done as it actually should be”, Janković points out.
Another statute of limitations reached relates to the case that CINS wrote about in 2016. Back then, we uncovered that SNS paid its activists who came to the rallies in Zaječar in 2013 for overnight stays at the Hotel Srbija-Tis in the center of this city. Transactions were carried out in cash, instead of through the party’s account. SNS did not report these costs to the Agency, thus trying to cover up the cost of slightly more than 700,000 RSD.
“There are several cases and situations that demonstrating an obvious intention to wait for the statute of limitations to be reached for some crimes in which there could be responsibility of the ruling party,” says Nenadić.
CINS also published a statement by the then MP Milinko Živković, who admitted that he participated in the collection of money.
However, after that, the ball was passed between the Prosecutor’s Office and the Agency in relation to who is to blame for the fact that the procedure was not initiated, and then the Prosecutor’s Office initiated it in 2016. As the deadline for initiating criminal proceedings is three years since the day of the potential criminal offense, the late reaction of the Prosecutor’s Office led to the expiry of the statute of limitations in this case as well.
Nenadić says that the Prosecutor’s Office is not proactive enough to investigate abuses of this kind on its own and that this is not a novelty related only to this government.
“There are several cases and situations demonstrating an obvious intention to wait for the statute of limitations to be reached for some crimes in which there could be responsibility of the ruling party.”
Restraining the Agency
In January 2018, three months after the case of suspicious donations to SNS appeared in public, Dragan Sikimić, one of the party’s donors, was elected director of the Agency. Sikimić was also a member of the Working Body of the Republic Election Commission for the Municipality of Zemun, appointed at the behest of SNS, and was on their list for the elections in Zemun in 2016.
After that, Transparency Serbia demanded that Sikimić‘s political affiliation be examined, while the Bureau for Social Research demanded that he resign.
However, Dragan Sikimić remained director, and one of the cases of illegal financing of the Serbian Progressive Party, which appeared after his appointment, has not even “left” the Agency.
After Sikimić‘s election, there were changes in the Sector for Control of Financing Political Activities. Some people left the Agency, and some transferred to other posts within that institution.
Some controversial situations not investigated
Nemanja Nenadić says that a large part of the cases in which the rules on financing election campaigns and political parties are violated have gone unpunished. One of the reasons, he believes, is that the Agency does not carry out oversight of the reports of the parties in a way that all cases of violations of the law could be detected.
"Control of election campaign costs should not only be done by pairing data, monitoring, and data from party reports, but also by cross-referencing information on the price paid by different parties. These differences are very large in some cases and indicate that some parties inflated costs so as to avoid returning funds to the state budget, while others did not report campaign-related costs."
He also says that it is noticeable that in some situations when the Agency could, on the basis of its mandate, request additional information from the parties, their service providers and state bodies, it did not conduct further investigations. Some controversial situations have remained uninvestigated.
Katarina Pavičić was appointed Head of the Sector in 2018. Before coming to the Agency, she worked in one of the departments of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, while Nebojša Stefanović was the Minister. She remained at the Agency until 2020, when she became assistant to Minister Stefanović, this time at the Ministry of Defense.
In the same year when Pavičić came to the Agency, SNS cited in its annual financial report a donation whose amount far exceeds the legal limit.
As CINS reported, SNS received the party premises, which it had been renting until then, as a gift from its official from Kruševac, Velibor Jovanović. Jovanović first bought the premises in bankruptcy for about 250,000 EUR, and then donated them to the party. At that time, they were worth about 1.3 million EUR. This far exceeded the permitted annual value of donations, and if it is determined that the law has been violated, the premises should be seized.
“If misdemeanor proceedings are not initiated within five years after the misdemeanor was committed, there will be a relative statute of limitations expiration and then it will not be possible to prosecute it”, lawyer Vladimir Tupanjac explains.
Katarina Pavičić told CINS that the Agency had a lot of cases at that time and that she remembered that they had worked on that case, but that she was not sure how far it had come.
“The job of people who carry out financing oversight is not a job that can be done in two or three days. There are certain protocols and procedures when you request information from other bodies and you have to wait for reports from other bodies to complete your case.”
However, Vladimir Tupanjac, a lawyer who used to work in the Agency’s Sector for Control of Financing Political Activities previously explained for CINS that what SNS stated in its report was quite enough for misdemeanor proceedings to be launched. He also said that even if they wanted to check the data that SNS submitted to the Agency, this institution would need a maximum of several months, and not more than three years. Therefore, he expressed suspicion that the Agency is waiting for the statute of limitations to expire.
“If misdemeanor proceedings are not initiated within five years after the misdemeanor was committed, there will be a relative statute of limitations expiration and then it will not be possible to prosecute it. So, if that was at the end of 2017, then at the end of 2022, the statute of limitations for the initiation of misdemeanor proceedings will have passed.”
By the time this article was published, the Agency failed to respond to questions on what was happening with this case. The latest information, from the end of last year, is that they were still collecting evidence.