Thousands of citizens from across Serbia set off for Belgrade on Friday, May 26. Their destination was “the largest gathering in the history of Serbia” – which is how the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) had announced the Serbia of Hope rally.
Along multiple Belgrade streets and boulevards, one could see endless columns of parked vehicles. There were so many that in some places they were parked in four columns, on the road and on the tram tracks.
Among them was the minibus of the Leptirići kindergarten from Ražanj, a small town in the southeast of Serbia. On it was a piece of paper with the name of its municipality and district.
The Director of that kindergarten, Marija Anđelković, confirmed for the Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia (CINS) that she and others from the kindergarten came to the rally in that vehicle. When asked who paid for this and whether there was a travel order for such a trip, Anđelković did not want to give a clear answer:
“I saw all kinds of things in the days preceding the rally and on that day in Belgrade, and I’m interested in all kinds of things, but I don’t keep calling people to ask.”
It was one of at least eight vehicles owned by local public companies and institutions, municipalities or cities, which were used to bring SNS supporters to the rally.
These are vehicles that CINS journalists spotted in Nemanjina Street and on Bulevar Kralja Aleksandra Street. These were just 2 of the 16 locations where buses and minibuses organized for transport to this gathering were parked.
Pavle Dimitrijević, a lawyer from the organization CRTA, which monitors elections and the work of political parties, says that there is suspicion of misuse of public resources and that this should be investigated.
“That is a problem, because the legal basis is unknown – why are public company vehicles at a rally of the President of the republic, that is, the president of the SNS.”
On that day, minibuses owned by the municipalities of Lebane and Dimitrovgrad were parked alongside other vehicles that were transporting Serbian Progressive Party supporters. They were bought using funds from the Ministry of Rural Welfare and their purpose should be transporting people from rural areas.
In the column of vehicles that brought SNS supporters to the rally, there was also a mini-bus plastered with photos of the Caričin grad archaeological site, with the coat of arms of the Municipality of Lebane and an inscription that leads to the official website of the municipality. However, the Assistant to the Lebane Municipality President, Nataša Stojanović, said that the vehicle is not municipal, but rather an advertisement:
"There was a vehicle, an advertisement for the location Caričin grad, which is a tourist attraction, an archaeological attraction for the whole of Serbia. Let's start promoting things like this a little, to put it aside, and let’s stop spreading hatred among people."
During the rally, a minibus with the markings of the City of Kruševac was also parked on Bulevar Kralja Aleksandra Street. The markings were covered with white tape. Even though the public procurement portal – in a document from September 2022 – lists this vehicle as theirs, the office of the Mayor of Kruševac, Jasmina Palurović, says that their official vehicles were not at the rally.
Nataša Stojanović, Assistant to the Lebane Municipality President, says that she did not pay attention and does not know that the minibus was there that day, while the Dimitrovgrad Municipality President, Vladica Dimitrov, says that he was at the rally that day, but that he did not see that minibus:
“I can’t be certain, but I don’t remember that minibus being in circulation.”
Secretary at the Ministry of Rural Welfare, Snežana Petrović, says that they did not know anything about this and that “it will be looked into”.
On the streets was also a minibus from Bor with “school bus” written on it. The Mayor of Bor, Aleksandar Milikić, has told CINS that the minibus is owned by the Tourism Organization of this city and that on that day it was transporting the family and friends of their fellow citizen who was competing at a music festival.
“One of our children from Bor, Katarina, is competing on RTS. Rock Festival. She was with her parents and family at that competition.”
However, CINS reached out to Katarina Jovanović from Bor, who competed at this festival that day, and she claims that what the Mayor is saying is not true:
“It is such a mockery. I am shocked. It is a total misuse of who I am for the sake of something I am expressly against.”
According to the Mayor, this means of transport was made available at the request of Katarina’s father, Dragan Jovanović. He did not want to speak publicly, but Katarina claims that her parents came in their own car.
Who will pay for all this?
SNS members came to the rally, among other things, in a minibus owned by the Municipality of Medveđa. In addition to the Municipality, it is also used by the Medveđa Sports Association.
The President of that association, Branislav Manasijević, said in a short interview for CINS that the Municipality used it for the rally that day:
“Whoever used it, paid for it – and that’s that.”
We were not able to reach the Municipality of Medveđa for comment.
On the other hand, representatives of some institutions whose vehicles were also at the rally did not want to say who paid for the transportation.
Nemanja Nenadić from Transparency Serbia says that it is possible that some of those vehicles were leased to SNS, but that the big question is whether such a lease is even permitted to certain institutions.
According to him, there is still no indication that the public will receive official information about the price of transportation of participants to the rally and other expenses before April 2024, when political parties will submit their annual financial reports to the Anti-Corruption Agency.
“Already now there are very serious doubts that part of those costs will not be submitted in the report. This can be expected, among other things, with regard to minibuses owned by local public institutions.”
The director of the public company Komunalac from Dimitrovgrad Saša Aleksov, whose minibus was in Belgrade on the day in question, told CINS that it was rented under contract and only used at that time. CINS did not get a response to questions about to whom and for how much money the minibus was rented.
The President of the Municipality of Dimitrovgrad, Vladica Dimitrov, confirmed that this minibus was rented for commercial purposes and that it was at the rally.
Nenadić says that the conditions under which the institutions provided their vehicles for the transportation of rally participants should be investigated by the Anti-Corruption Agency, and that it could do so immediately.
“In addition to the Agency, it is obvious that public prosecutors could and should investigate as well due to the possibility of misuse by the directors of those institutions.”
He also points out that the worst option is that there was no lease at all:
“If the director of a public institution decided to make a minibus available to a political party for transportation with no compensation in return – something like this is clearly prohibited”.