Photo: Pescanik
Photo: Pescanik

A few days ago, a large new laboratory specialized in coronavirus tests was opened in Belgrade. In addition to the undoubted importance of the new laboratory in the fight against the current pandemic, the news of its opening attracted attention because of its unusual name – Fire Eye.

Government officials, with the help of Chinese guests, explained that the name comes from a Chinese fairytale about the fiery eyes of the mythical Monkey King, which see everything, perceive all dangers and threats no matter how concealed, and allow him to prevail over them. In Wuhan, the epicenter of the COVID-19 epidemic, a testing laboratory was given the same name and is said to have significantly contributed to the fight against the virus.

But, if the origin of this name, extravagant both for our circumstances and for the medical company, were explained to the citizens of Serbia, something much more trivial remained hidden – its cost. The citizens were only told that it was a donation, that the laboratory was not paid for by our taxpayers’ money, which is undoubtedly nice, but for many reasons it would also be nice, useful, and normal if they were officially informed about the nature and at least approximate value of this donation. And the fact that this information was kept hidden, perhaps not particularly important in itself, inevitably reminds us of something much more interesting – that the citizens do not really know anything, at least not reliably, about the value of other donations received from foreign countries and, organizations or from companies, entrepreneurs, citizens, nor about how they are used.

The website of the ministry of finance published only instructions for payment of donations for assistance in the fight against Corona, i.e. COVID-19, but it did not publish any, especially not documented, reports on received donations in cash or equipment, or on where and according to which criteria these assets were being distributed.

The reason for this is inexplicable. All the more so because the citizens of Serbia had reason to hope that this problem had long been resolved, back during the 2014 floods. Back then, after the same kind of practice was widely sharply criticized, the Government of Serbia began to publish and regularly update information on received donations. It is worrying that this good practice has been forgotten by the Government in the meantime.

And the fact that the Serbian public does not have information about donations is less worrying than the fact that there is no information about the expenditures of large amounts of taxpayers’ money for equipment that our government procures as necessary for the fight against COVID-19. This is despite the fact that there is a statutory state Public procurement portal on which this information, by law, should be kept up to date and available to the general public. However, there is no information there and all the citizens of Serbia get are occasional bombastic, but incomplete bits of information about large purchases, mostly in a highly non-standard way, through statements made by the president to his favorite media or shared through his profiles on social networks, or more rarely from his associates.

So, for example, citizens were informed that Serbia had spent about € 400 million for these purposes, that it had, among other things, procured a large number of respirators, tripling, at least, the number from before the pandemic, and that now there are over 1,100 of them, maybe even significantly more. However, despite the failure of the prime minister’s tragically comical attempt to explain to citizens that the number of respirators is a state secret, because, as she likes to (as a rule, incorrectly) say, “that’s how it is in every country in the world”, the fact remains that the public doesn’t have any reliable information about the procurement of respirators – both on their exact number and the amount spent on them. We don’t know anything about how and by whom the need to purchase so many respirators was estimated, although this information would definitely be very interesting, as we’ve heard that several hundred additional respirators were procured, although all available data shows that there were never more than 150 patients on respirators at any given time.

Equally troubling is the fact that the citizens do not know anything about some other, to put it mildly, unusual procurements, extremely unconvincingly justified as part of the fight against the pandemic by the government officials. An illustrative example of this is the recent procurement of 10,000 national flags that the city of Belgrade “on behalf of the President” distributed to some citizens so that, by hanging up the flags in their windows, they could express their gratitude and support to the medical staff fighting the pandemic.

This example is literally unbelievable and raises a lot of pertinent questions. Is the city allowed, and for which reason, to donate anything on behalf of the president; which citizens were chosen, and according to which criteria, to receive these flags; how is hanging up a flag supposed to support medical professionals? But of course, before all these, the main question is: to whom, how, and how much money was paid for these flags?

The absence of aforementioned and other information on donations and expenditures, the apparent unwillingness of the government to provide that information and to answer the logical questions posed by their actions, are a good reason to look at how similar phenomena are treated in the more structured and more responsible world.

And the most pertinent news from that world is the warning by the Council of Europe, i.e. GRECO (Group of States against corruption), issued in the form of guidelines to the group of 50 member states. Relating to this, GRECO president, Marin Mrcela, said:

“As countries face undeniable emergencies, concentration of power, derogation of rights and freedoms, and as large amounts of money are infused into the economy to alleviate the crisis corruption risks should not be underestimated. Decisions related to measures by central, regional and local authorities to face the pandemic must be transparent and subject to oversight and accountability. Transparency in the public sector is one of the most important means for preventing corruption, whatever form it takes. The need for regular and reliable information from public institutions is crucial in times of emergency. This concerns the spread and risks of the pandemic as such, but also emergency measures taken in response to them. We should not allow COVID-19 to compromise our values and our standards, including transparency and accountability.”

In the fight against Corona, having a mighty Fire Eye is certainly helpful. But in the fight against corruption, we don’t need any kind of special, all-seeing eye to realize the magnitude of the abyss between GRECO recommendations and our reality. And, accordingly, how two-faced, sneaky, dangerous and unacceptable the phrase we so often hear is: “we are fighting for human lives, this is no time for talks about rights and democracy”.

The author is a lawyer and former Commissioner for Information of public importance and personal data protection.

Translated by Marijana Simic

Pešč, 29.04.2020.