Decorating the democracy

Photo: Predrag Trokicic

Photo: Predrag Trokicic

The Commissioner for information of public importance and personal data protection has not yet received a security certificate for access to classified information, even though the legal deadline has passed. The Commissioner needs this certificate to protect the public’s right to know what the state is doing in the most difficult situations, which is crucial for the functioning of democracy. The government Office of the national security council and classified information protection, which has issued 1,252 security certificates by 2016, remained silent when asked by the media why the certificate hasn’t been issued to the Commissioner. The situation with the Security information agency, on whose recommendation the certificate is issued, is similar. No one knows what happened since February 2015, when the Commissioner’s security certificate was last extended.

Without the certificate, the Commissioner is not able to do his job. It was already said that the law was violated. The consequences are two-fold. It is the right of the citizens to know in whose interest the state operates and how national money is spent. Without the Commissioner, the government is given an opportunity to hide information from them. More specifically, without the Commissioner, we wouldn’t have found out that the prosecution didn’t even try to find evidence on how the defense minister received about 205,000 euros to buy an apartment. Without the Commissioner, it woudn’t be known that the government is trying to shift all responsibility for the demolition in Hercegovacka to the head of the shift of Belgrade police. Without the Commissioner, it wouldn’t be known how the police conducts a security assessment of high-risk events such as the pride parade. Without the Commissioner, the former opposition, which is the present government, would have no data to use in its political struggle, such as the salaries of public company managers. Without the Commissioner, democracy in Serbia is lost.

After the changes of October 5th, new independent institutions were formed in Serbia to strengthen external control of executive power on the road to democracy. Establishment of the Ombudsman, the Commissioner for information of public importance and personal data protection, the Anti-corruption agency, and the State audit institution was not easy, it took a long time and had no political support. The Ombudsman was not elected within the legal deadline because there was no majority in the Assembly. The Commissioner worked with only six employees for at least five years. The Anti-corruption agency, after many troubles and with the help of the Constitutional court, managed to ban political officials from having double functions. Politicians were surprised by the first report of the state auditor in 2009 which told us that EUR 700,000 of public money was spent in restaurants.

It’s been more than 15 years of reforms and countless attempts to consolidate democracy in Serbia. During that period, independent state control institutions have faced a number of concerns. However, lack of proper offices or staff is currently a minor problem; the greater trouble is that the current government is trying to hinder or control the work of independent control institutions. In such an environment, control institutions become only a decoration of democracy. Reports of independent control institutions weren’t discussed in the assembly for three years, although they are a useful tool for MPs to carry out one of the most important parliamentary roles, which is the control of the executive government. The new director of the Anti-corruption agency was a member of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party and one of its donors during the presidential campaign. Pressures on these institutions are constant. All of this was noted by the European Commission, which in its latest progress report pointed out that support for the work of independent control institutions has not improved.

The simulation of democracy in Serbia is no longer a state secret. The vital democratic principle of the separation of powers has been degraded daily for the last ten years. In the four years from 2008 to 2012, the organization of government has turned into a semi-presidential system contrary to the constitutional model. It was an introduction to a defective democracy in which power is concentrated within the executive government without proper control. In Serbia today, we have a hybrid regime. An informal presidential system combining democratic attributes such as elections with autocratic style which prevents the separation of powers which exists to protect the freedom of the individual. The existence of strong independent state control institutions in such an environment is crucial for the functioning of democracy. It is enough to start with the recommendations of the European Commission that underline that the functional independence of control institutions must be guaranteed in practice and their role as a correctional mechanism must be fully recognized.

The author is a researcher of the Belgrade center for security policy (BCSP).

Translated by Marijana Simic

Peščanik.net, 23.05.2018.