During August, without any discussion or even a public announcement the government of Montenegro took away one of the most successful tools civil society has to fight corruption: it removed the unique birth number, a string of 13 digits that is given to citizens at birth. More importantly to activists, the number is used in online land and corporate ownership registers.
This makes it possible to be sure that you know exactly who owns what and where, even if people have the same name or even birthdate, this number is unique to them.
MANS, the Transparency International contact group in Montenegro, uses this unique ID number to investigate if politicians or people in power are hiding assets or investing in companies that present a conflict of interest. It has been a singularly effective tool in uncovering corruption.
Transparency International strongly believes that governments should make it possible for citizens to have access to information on the assets of public figures and people connected to them. We recommend governments make it mandatory for politicians not only to declare their assets but also any potential conflicts of interest. Reinstating the publication of the unique numbers would clearly help this process.
In the past 10 years, MANS has brought to light a series of cases where leading political figures have been shown to be involved in business deals linked to their political positions of power. Without the unique birth number, it would have been impossible to identify the alleged wrongdoing.
Zavala Case: a MANS investigation has led to a court case involving the approvals given for the construction of a hotel complex in what was supposed to be a protected site. So far two people have been arrested; one was a brother of former deputy prime minister.
Skočiđevojka Case: Political interference allowed a state-owned military complex to be sold off to private investors well below its market value. At the time there were several land restitution claims which lowered the price. Three years later the land was resold to foreign investors at several times the original sale price after the restitution claims were dismissed. An investigation showed that many of the actors involved, including the judge deciding the restitution claims, were involved in the business deals.
Valdanos Case: The olive groves of historical importance on the coast of Montenegro became the centre of a land battle after a development tender was approved for luxury villas. Investigations showed a network of companies with several politicians involved in the deals, which eventually led to the tender being withdrawn.
In these cases it was possible to link a suspect deal to a person because of the unique birth number as part of their investigation. The organisation recently wrote to both the tax and land registry authorities to ask why the number is now removed from documents and is calling on the government to reverse this decision.
Transparency is the first line of defence against corruption and if politicians and their cronies are able to hide their identities in deal making then civil society will not know whether they have acted in good faith or are using their entrusted power for personal gains: the Transparency International definition of corruption.
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