Serbia: Hopefully a new government renews the fight against corruption

Serbia: Hopefully a new government renews the fight against corruption

The front runner to become Prime Minister of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, is often associated with fighting corruption. In 2012 when he was First Vice Prime Minister, he was the government’s “coordinator for the fight against corruption” and developed a reputation for taking down corrupt individuals.

Still, even though Vucic’s actions have made some difference in combatting corruption in Serbia, Transparency Serbia and others are cautious about his approach. Leadership and activism are good and relevant, but what is needed to tackle corruption in the long run is a sustainable, systematic approach.

Much work to do

Transparency International’s 2013 Global Corruption Barometer, a public opinion poll, shows that more than 70 per cent of Serbians surveyed said that corruption is a “very serious” problem in the public sector. It is evident that much more needs to be done to stop the abuse of power, secret dealings and bribery. This is doubly true if the country wants to join the European Union.

Civil society, and in particular Transparency Serbia, suggest a number of areas from political party financing and public-private partnerships, to public procurement, where much work still needs to be done to clean up Serbia.

For Transparency Serbia, which has been working to stop corruption since 2002, improper influence of political parties is a major concern. Furthermore, research by the anti-corruption group shows that much of the public sector is under the control of political operatives.

Problems with political parties

In fact, our latest Global Corruption Barometer showed political parties in a virtual tie with public officials and civil servants, the judiciary, and the medical and health sector as the institutions considered most corrupt in Serbian society.

Political parties continue to control numerous public enterprises, and transparency provisions meant to allow the citizens of Serbia to have a greater understanding of how their government works and how political influence is exerted, are violated by 80 per cent of public enterprises. The government also continues to appoint top management positions in the public administration in violation of the law governing civil service.

Transparency Serbia vows to press for improvements in the legislation, which would decrease political influence on the selection process of management for those companies, and is pressing government to tighten oversight of their work in practice. Provisions need to allow for the actual removal of managers who performing badly.

At the moment, the law regulating appointments of top civil servants is regularly violated, as shown by research on top civil service appointments. Were it implemented, the situation would improve dramatically.

Needed reforms, positive steps

Organisations like Transparency Serbia have exposed poor practices and are trying to provide civil oversight, however what is missing are functioning oversight mechanisms within civil service, and sufficient pressure from the outside, especially from the EU accession process, to enforce existing good legislation.

Election financing also needs to be improved. Transparency Serbia found numerous cases where campaign costs were not reported or were reported in the “wrong place” in reports, while donations were not published on parties’ webpages. Such transgressions and others could be stopped if the  Anti-corruption Agency were to initiate sanctioning procedures for all such cases, and the public prosecutor was to investigate all individuals suspected of abuses of power, vote buying and criminal offences. Also courts need to act more effectively once charges have been submitted. 

Despite the government’s professed desire for anti-corruption, both public procurement and public-private partnerships have numerous weaknesses that allow corruption to seep in. For example, trouble arises when there isn’t a competitive process in place, especially when foreign investors are involved. Signed contracts also need to be published.

Serbia has made some smart moves against corruption, for example with the establishment of a free access to information law properly enforced by the independent Information Commissioner – a good example for the whole region. But more needs to be done. Serbia aspires to enter the European Union, a process which has already spurred improvement to the legislature and the institutional framework for the fight against corruption. In order for this process to continue having positive effects, however, strong focus on the issues at hand is needed.

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