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COVID-19 pandemic has weakened the ability of Serbia’s governance systems to fight corruption

Serbia’s performance on the Corruption Perceptions Index hit an eight-year low in 2020. Why has the country failed to make progress in the fight against corruption?

Image: Aleksandar S / Shutterstock

Transparency Serbia

As a Serbian citizen, it is both disappointing and unsurprising that Serbia’s performance on the Corruption Perceptions Index has reached an eight-year low and is now more than five points below the global average. While only dropping one point in 2020, Serbia’s score of 38 out of 100, where 0 is highly corrupt and 100 is very clean, makes it the worst since 2012.

Back in 2013, things looked much more optimistic. Amidst widespread public discontent over corruption, the Serbian government publicly announced its intention to clean up its act and step up its efforts against corruption. This was a new “zero tolerance” approach touted by the nation’s current leaders, who came to power on the back of a strong anti-corruption narrative.

The government also had strong incentives and support from international community to improve its anti-corruption efforts. In particular, significant progress in this area is a critical pre-condition for accession to the European Union, and the integration of Serbia into EU institutions. The majority of Serbian citizens were in favour both of tackling corruption and joining the EU, so addressing corruption as a government priority made political sense.

To say the government’s much hyped anti-corruption plans have been a disappointment, would be an understatement. We find ourselves in a situation where high-level corruption cases remain unaddressed by the competent authorities, and in turn corruption contributes to challenges with the rule of law, an erosion of democratic norms and the silencing of critical voices.

The prosecution is imputed to turning a blind eye to potential cases of corruption by current political leaders and their business partners reported by independent media, civil society organisations and the opposition. Equally, they have failed to investigate claims of alleged corruption committed by previous political leaders, claims repeatedly made by public officials and pro-governmental media.

It has taken a recent statement by the president of the Belgrade High Court (who is in charge of high-level corruption cases), that prosecutors have not brought a single indictment against ministers or directors of state-owned enterprises accused of corruption, to provoke a reaction from the otherwise mostly imperceptible State Prosecutor. Even then, the prosecutor only presented overall statistics of cases, most referring to petty-corruption cases resolved through plea bargaining. Impunity for those alleged to be involved in of high-level corruption was left unaddressed.

There are numerous examples where the Government failed to fulfil promises both to its own citizens and to the EU-- including improving campaign finance rules, implementation of access to information or the professionalization of management in public administration and state-owned enterprises, particularly where there is evidence that these may be illegally managed.

Failure to make progress when it comes to the fight against corruption is even more visible when looking at the results of reforms that have been implemented. The frequently praised 2014 Law on Whistleblower Protection, has failed to result in increased reports of corruption. More damning, is that in the most prominent whistleblowing case of alleged abuse in the state-owned arms-production factory, Krusik, the alleged perpetrators remained uninvestigated and the whistleblower has been threaten with criminal investigation.

When it first came to power in 2012, the current ruling party adopted a law on public procurement with strong anti-corruption provisions. The results of that implementation have been poor and, at same time, the government increased the practice of direct, non-competitive and not transparent contracting for major infrastructure projects, using inter-state agreements or “special laws“ as a legal basis.

Accountability mechanisms have been gradually weakened over the years. Due to boycotts and a failure to reach a parliamentary threshold, opposition parties are not represented in the Parliament and cannot hold the government to account. Independent oversight agencies that are not already controlled by the ruling party are either ignored or heavily criticized by parliamentarians. Independent media and CSOs calling for greater accountability are treated as political opposition.

On top of that, within the government structure, democratic institutions have become little more than a façade of an increasingly authoritarian regime. For example, the president of Republic, despite his rather limited constitutional legal powers, effectively controls all critical decisions, including the length of time parliamentarians hold their mandate.

The Covid-19 crisis has only worsened these trends. We have seen governments roll back transparency and oversight protections everywhere around the world during the pandemic, but Serbia is almost unique in that all information about the procurement of medical equipment was declared secret. It is almost certainly the only country where the President publicly claimed that he procured a part of it illegally.

In an extraordinary rejection of their responsibilities towards Serbia citizens, both Parliament and the Constitutional Court suspended themselves, when they were most needed – during the state of emergency in spring of 2020.

This has been accompanied by extensive curfews, violence against protesters, the arrest and detention of an investigative journalist, and retaliation against health care workers who criticised the government’s response to the public health crisis.

While this paints a bleak picture, if there is light at the end of a very long tunnel, it is that the pandemic has brutally exposed the weakness of Serbia’s governance systems to fight corruption, and it has clearly demonstrated to Serbian citizens that there was no genuine will to set–up an effective system to fight against corruption, based on rule of law. This can only lead to demands for change and greater accountability. This time though, we will have learned the lessons of 2013.

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