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State Shows No Interest in Fighting Corruption

26. May 2016.
Ilustracija: Đorđe Matić
The enactment of a new bill on the Anti-Corruption Agency, stipulating broader competencies to be vested in this institution, has fallen behind schedule for over two years. Independent institutions exposing corruption lack the support of the highest echelons of power. Officials are taking no notice of the Anti-Corruption Agency’s decisions whilst the government is failing to take into consideration the Anti-Corruption Council’s reports.

From 2012 through to 2014, the municipality of Babušnica made payments to the tune of over RSD 4 million to Jug-inženjering company, whose majority owner first was mayor Saša Stamenković, and later on his brother Srđan. As a local official, Stamenković was issuing payment orders in favour of the said company, failing in the process to notify the Municipal Assembly and the Anti-Corruption Agency about his potential conflict of interest.

 

However, acting upon a report filed, the Agency brought proceedings against Stamenković and subsequently found that “both he and the related parties benefited from this scheme thereby compromising the trust of the citizens in respect of his conscientious and accountable discharging of public office duties”. He was penalised by making public recommendation to be relieved of his post in November 2015. 

 

Photo from www.babusnica.rs web site

Saša Stamenković, Babušnica Mayor

Stamenković has carried on as Babušnica mayor since the municipal assembly failed on three occasions to get quorum required to vote on a motion to relieve him of his post even though Stamenković himself had filed the motion for his resignation.

 

Thus, on 14 April this year, the municipal assembly meeting started with 35 councillors in attendance out of a total of 37. Following a debate on Stamenković’s resignation, only 6 councillors remained in attendance, shrinking further to 4 councillors present after a fifteen-minute break, which was eventually not enough to pass a decision. A similar scenario played out at the assembly meetings on 22 April and 5 May, respectively.

 

This is just one of dozens of cases in which the Anti-Corruption Agency has found officials holding public office to be in a conflict of interest and issued recommendations to relieve them of their posts, but which have not been followed through in practice.

 

“Such actions of individual public bodies give political will precedence over the rule of law,” says Tatjana Babić, the Anti-Corruption Agency director. “If a political majority’s own decisions are taking primacy over legal solutions, then such a majority may well push through anything just because they are in the majority.”

 

Another Body with No Results

In order to step up the work on fighting corruption, the Government formed in 2014 a coordinating body, headed by prime minister Aleksandar Vučić, for the implementation of the National Anti-Corruption Strategy Action Plan.

Whilst the decision on this body’s formation stipulated “the coordinating body is to hold meetings at least once every six months”, according to the Anti-Corruption Agency, only two meetings have taken place to date – following its inception in September 2014 and in January 2016. No response from the Serbian Government to the CINS questions about this body’s activities was received prior to the publication of this article.

Mr. Stamenković has not responded to requests of the Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia (CINS) for an interview. The Agency has also filed criminal charges against him on suspicion of abuse of office. 

 

The enactment of a new bill on the Anti-Corruption Agency, which might stipulate broader competencies to be vested in this institution, including binding decisions on dismissal of politicians from their positions, has fallen behind schedule for over two years. Nonetheless, the deadlines have been extended at least three times, hence the passage of the bill will have to wait for the first session of the new parliament.

 

Radomir Ilić, state secretary with the Ministry of Justice, said the quality of legislation mattered more than deadlines, “It would be better if both the Agency and the Ministry backed this bill 100%, and then there would be no flaws whatsoever in its enforcement.”

 

Essential anti-corruption strategic documents, such as National Strategy and Anti-Corruption Action Plan, are not being implemented consistently, said Nemanja Nenadić, Transparency Serbia programming director. He went on to say no one was held to account for a failure to meet the set deadlines and obligations, including the adoption of the new Anti-Corruption Agency bill.

 

Stricter Controls for Public Officials

 

One of the messages most often put across to public in the past two terms in office of the Serbian Government was that the talk about fighting corruption amounted to much more than just paying lip service to it. The government with Ivica Dačić at its helm passed the 2013-2018 National Anti-Corruption Strategy along with an action plan for its implementation. 

 

The Strategy stipulated the passage of amendments to the law on Anti-Corruption Agency, which, in its capacity as an independent body, controls the financing of political parties, personal property of public officials, their private businesses and conflict of interest that may arise whilst holding public office.

 

As far back as 2013 the Ministry of Justice was tasked with working on a draft law for 12 months and submitting it to the government for consideration. The one-year deadline expired in mid-2014 without even a working group to start drafting the bill having been formed.

 

With new bill falling behind schedule, in July 2014 the Agency launched an initiative with the Justice Ministry to pass a new bill and put forward a blueprint after which the working group might model the draft law.

 

One of the reasons for delays stems from the general attitude of the executive branch of government towards independent bodies, including the Agency, “which has evolved from support for them 4-5 years ago into their treatment as enemies”

Nemanja Nenadić, Transparency Serbia Programming Director

Problems encountered whilst operating under the existing law prompted the Agency to suggest its recommendations to dismiss public officials from their posts should become mandatory instead of non-binding. Thus, public officials would not be able to hold on to their posts if the Agency found they were in a conflict of interest or holding several public offices.

 

“If a city council refuses to dismiss a public official three times, each time another public official, whom have been found to be in a conflict of interest, without any explanation…, then you have to propose that your recommendation become binding instead of having a recommendation merely calling on another body to do its job,” Babić told CINS.

 

In addition, the Agency sought to introduce checks of personal assets of not only public officials’ spouses and their underage children, but also their parents and adult children. Accuracy of data in personal income and property statements would also be checked and the banks would be under an obligation to present information on personal accounts and businesses of public officials.  

 

“Everything we’ve suggested is intended to enhance our efficiency in combating and preventing corruption and protecting public interest,” said Babić.

 

According to Radomir Ilić, Justice Ministry state secretary, the Ministry agrees with regard to the manner of defining public officials’ conflict of interest, personal property sheets and access to databases.

 

There is a disagreement though over the binding character of the Agency’s rulings, said Ilić, as such a proposal would empower the Agency to infringe on the political system and create a possibility for triggering a government crisis in the event of a dismissal of a cabinet minister. He went on to say it was indeed a problem that the recommendations for dismissals had not been acted upon so far at all.

 

Dragging Feet over New Law

 

In September 2014, Justice Minister Nikola Selaković was voicing his dissatisfaction with the implementation of measures from the Strategy’s Action Plan going on to say that “there are many anti-corruption bodies in Serbia, but no results nevertheless”.

 

The situation was further complicated by the proceedings brought a month later by the Agency against Selaković on account of his conflict of interest as he has been involved in the election of an advisor from the Justice Ministry as a judge and of another as a prosecutor. Thereafter, due to this case which has not yet been brought to a conclusion, the Minister has been criticising in public the work of the Agency.

 

In late 2014, the Justice Ministry drafted an action plan for Chapter 23 of the EU membership negotiations. Once again the deadline for the passage of the new law was extended to the first quarter of 2015.

 

In January 2015, Minister Selaković took a decision to set up a new draft law working group, including representatives of the Agency and the Anti-Corruption Council, Ministry of Justice, Belgrade Misdemeanour Court, Public Prosecutor’s Office and Transparency Serbia.

 

This body held over 20 meetings in the course of 2015, but no bill has yet been finalised to be tested in a public debate. A new extended deadline for the adoption of the new bill was set in December 2015 by the Serbian Government’s Annual Plan stipulating the completion of the bill by June 2016. 

 

There’s been no reaction to any of the reports… Never has the prime minister called us, and yet we’ve asked for meetings countless times (…) As if we didn’t exist, as if he couldn’t care less about our work… 

Jelisaveta Vasilić, Anti-Corruption Council member

In the final version of the Chapter 23 Action Plan for accession to the European Union from April 2016, the deadline was once again extended and set for the second half of this year.

 

Radomir Ilić of the Justice Ministry said the Agency director was trusted with chairing the working group, hence the ministry was not solely responsible for the slow pace of the working group.

 

Agency director Babić said the working group faced constraints from the beginning, above all, due to its size – there were as many as 17 members, hence the meetings were often cancelled for lack of quorum.

 

Nemanja Nenadić, also a working group member, said one of the reasons for delays stemmed from the general attitude of the executive branch of government towards independent bodies, including the Agency, “which has evolved from support for them 4-5 years ago into their treatment as enemies”.

 

Adoption of the new law is a sensitive issue, explained Nenadić, as it is hard to come up with solutions which would not send shock waves through the entire system. Therefore, he went on, many reasons could be found for foot-dragging, but such delays were directly precipitated by reasons which were political in their nature and by some sort of a stand-off.

 

The European Commission’s 2015 Serbia Progress Report also highlighted the issue of major delays in amending the Anti-Corruption Agency Act. Fighting corruption received one of the poorest marks in the report and the adoption of a new Anti-Corruption Agency law was referred to as something that Serbia needed to do as soon as possible.

 

No One Needs Council Reports

 

The Anti-Corruption Agency is not the only anti-corruption body facing problems in its work and being given the cold shoulder by the institutions. Since its inception in 2001, the Anti-Corruption Council has been constantly alerting the authorities to corruption in various walks of life and in institutions, but their reports are not promptly acted upon, whilst their appeals fall on deaf ears in the government.

 

Just in 2015 the Council compiled six reports on pressures and ownership in the media, public sector advertising, Serbia Railways business operation, procurement of electric meters by the Ministry of Mining and Energy, unlawful privatisation proceedings and Dipos doo Belgrade business operation, respectively.

 

National Anti-Corruption Strategy

National Anti-Corruption Strategy covers 10 areas as part of which by 2018 problems that potentially may be conducive to corruption must be resolved. These are: political activities entailing amendments to many laws, public finances, public expenditure, privatisation, judiciary, police, media, etc.

Anti-Corruption Council is in charge of following the work on the Strategy. Its three reports so far cite as biggest problems in the protracted implementation of the Strategy insufficient financial resources and a small number of employees working on these tasks, as well as unclear deadlines, delays in adoption or amendments to laws and poor communication among institutions.

Jelisaveta Vasilić, Council member, said there was no political will in place to fight corruption, “The Strategy is one of many regulations which has remained a dead letter.” 

“There’s been no reaction to any of the reports… Never has the prime minister called us, and yet we’ve asked for meetings countless times (…) As if we didn’t exist, as if he couldn’t care less about our work,” said Vasilić.

 

For almost two years already the Council has been operating without some of its members as the Government is not responding to its repeated requests for filling the vacant posts.

 

“One may claim with certainty that the failure to fill the vacancies in the Council is a direct consequence of the lack of support for these institutions, i.e. the authorities’ backlash against their critical remarks,” said Nenadić.

 

The Council’s reports on twenty-four contentious privatisation cases and the sale of state-owned companies were made a condition for Serbia’s accession to the EU in 2011 and the last two governments both pledged these cases would be resolved soon.

 

However, according to the CINS investigation in 2015, out of a total 24 cases, not a single judgment was handed down, whereas trials were set in motion in only five cases. In the meantime, one year on, draft charges in another case have been filed with the Higher Prosecutor’s Office in Belgrade, whereas other cases are stranded in the investigation phase. 

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