Towards the end of 2021, during one of the most massive protests in Serbia and roadblocks caused by Rio Tinto’s potential arrival, protesters in Novi Sad broke glass on the premises of the Movement of Socialists (PS) and took the party flag. A picture of party leader and Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin had been on the broken window.
The party described this as “a mob attack and an attempted lynching”.
“The Movement of Socialists will continue to be in its premises next Saturday, free of fear from thugs, defending the freedom of Novi Sad and the citizens of Novi Sad,” a press release on PS’s website reads.
However, what the public was not aware of was that the party, judging by its financial reports, does not even rent these premises.
Documents obtained by the Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia (CINS) show that the Movement of Socialists has been paying rent for their use for years, but has never reported these expenses in its reports to the Anti-Corruption Agency.
CINS’s database on the financing of political parties, Party Funds, shows how much the Movement of Socialists received from the budget and the expenses it reports.
The Novi Sad premises are not the only example. An investigation carried out by CINS reveals that this year, the party has been paying rent for boards in several places across Serbia, but those expenses have remained hidden.
Nemanja Nenadić from Transparency Serbia says political parties are obliged to report the costs of renting the premises they use and adds that hiding those costs makes their reports incomplete.
“If this concealment is being done intentionally in order to cover up expenses or sources of funding, then we could be talking about a criminal offence.”
Invisible boards throughout Serbia
CINS has discovered that the Movement of Socialists has used or continues to use at least 20 premises throughout Serbia in recent years, without reporting them.
Such is the case with the premises in Kragujevac, recognizable from the street – a large picture of Aleksandar Vulin with the inscription “choose to fight” is pasted on the glass. CINS journalists visited these premises at the beginning of March, but there was no one present at the time.
The premises are owned by the City of Kragujevac, and the Movement of Socialists has been the occupant since September 2012. Since then, according to the contract, the party allocated more than RSD 580,000 for rent – excluding VAT and electricity, water, and heating bills, among other things.
In addition to the contract with the City of Kragujevac and Novi Sad, CINS also uncovered three other contracts involving premises in Leskovac, Subotica and Niš.
In Niš, the party is renting rooms in a house near the city center. City representatives confirmed for CINS that the premises fall under their ownership, and that the Movement of Socialists pays them around RSD 18,000 per month for rent. In Leskovac, the Movement of Socialists did not pay rent to the public enterprise Dom from Leskovac for at least 52 months, as JugPress wrote at the time, and that debt amounted to RSD 320,000 at the end of last year.
The party also owes money to Subotica. According to data obtained by CINS, they did not pay rent to the City for nearly a year, after which a court procedure was initiated. However, PS remained at the location until recently.
In addition, the rent for the Novi Sad premises has a more favorable price for Vulin’s party than for other tenants. For example, a law office in the same building pays two and a half times more (for a smaller space) than Vulin’s party, according to the contracts signed.
The reason for this is that as a parliamentary political party, the Movement of Socialists is entitled to a discount based on the city’s decision. Humanitarian organizations helping sick children and persons with disabilities, citizens’ associations in the fields of health, culture, science, also have a right to the same discount, as do other organizations.
However, Bojana Selaković, Program Director at Civic Initiatives, believes that the conditions for these associations and parties cannot be the same because, according to the law, all associations work in the public interest, which isn’t necessarily the case with political parties.
“It is well-known that fields of public interest include vulnerable groups, humanitarian work, culture, youth… (…) A political party is fighting for an idea that does not have to be in the public interest.”
She believes that such a privileged position would make sense for certain political parties with a smaller number of members and financiers.
The Movement of Socialists failed to respond to questions sent to them via e-mail.
Financing gray zone
According to the Law on Financing Political Activities, all political parties are required to keep bookkeeping records of all revenues and expenditures. Every year in mid-April, they need to submit an annual financial report containing all that information to the Agency.
However, until the beginning of 2021, the Movement of Socialists officially reported only its Belgrade premises in its reports.
In those six years, the party allocated around RSD 14.7 million for rent (in Belgrade) and another RSD 19.8 million for bills and other expenses. It received money from the budget for regular work from 40 cities, but this is not mentioned in the part containing expenditures.
Since 2015, the Agency has looked into the party’s reports several times, but has not determined that the Movement of Socialists does not report all its expenses.
“This raises the question of how the Agency investigates expenditures of this kind. Judging by this, it would appear that the Agency did not check where all the parties have boards, or compared this with the expenses listed in the report, which seems to be a logical step if a comprehensive investigation is being carried out,” says Nemanja Nenadić.
Although the Law on Financing Political Activities should be more precise, Nenadić believes that this case may involve misdemeanor liability. According to him, the Agency should first inform the prosecutor’s office so that it can determine whether it is criminal or misdemeanor responsibility.
The Anti-Corruption Agency has informed CINS that the Department for Oversight of Financing Political Activities is fully committed to monitoring the current election campaign, which is why they are unable answer the questions we sent them.