The very fact that the government of Serbia (i.e. the prime minister’s office) analyzed the content of a report related to the situation in Serbia is, regardless of how incomplete their analysis was (which will be discussed further), a sign of progress compared to the usual flat assessments and outright ignoring that such reports are usually met with. In a better world, the government of Serbia would prepare and publish written reactions to all reports of relevant international and domestic organizations, or, for a start, to the reports of its own Anti-corruption council.
The reasons for the quick reaction in this case are almost certainly related to the general assessments from the Freedom House “Nations in Transition 2020” global report, where Serbia, along with Poland, Hungary, and Montenegro, is listed as a “leader in declining democracy”, as well as the fact that, due to the weaker score, Serbia is now seen as a “transitional / hybrid regime” instead of a “semi-consolidated democracy”. It is perfectly understandable that our government was frustrated by the fact that this change of category was caused by the loss of only one point compared to last year (a drop from 50 to 49 out of 100). However, that only means that the situation a year ago was practically just as bad.
That is why a significant part of the analysis and response to Freedom House is dedicated to attempting to challenge the justification of the research conclusions that led to the loss of that one point. This decline was caused only by a lower score in the category of corruption, in which FH assesses “public perception of corruption, business interests of political decision makers, laws on disclosure of financial interests and conflicts of interest and the effectiveness of anti-corruption initiatives.”
Out of the 4,879 words in the summary of “NIT 2020” for Serbia (which seems to be tendentiously illustrated with pictures of the recently repaved Republic Square), corruption is mentioned 27 times. FH points out that the rating in this category has been reduced due to the “cumulative increase in high-level corruption coupled with the absence, and in some cases actual dismantlement, of policies and institutions that would successfully fight or prevent corruption.”
FH talks about SNS’s promises to fight corruption in 2012, how high-level corruption was “entrenched” by 2019, and how anti-corruption institutions and policies, which were already fragile, were further undermined. The assessment of the situation mentions less progress in the number of prosecuted and adjudicated cases, while the impression of a rise in high-level corruption is illustrated by the prosecution’s ignoring of scandals, the discrediting of investigative journalists, and the explicitly cited failure by state institutions to investigate information made public by Aleksandar Obradovic, a whistleblower from Krusik.
Here we come to the first problem with the analysis and reaction of the government of Serbia – there is no answer provided to any of these claims. This is perhaps understandable when it comes to general assessments of the situation, which have not been elaborated, but not when it comes to the case of Krusik, which was specifically mentioned. The substantive challenge to the findings should, therefore, include information on the measures taken by the prosecution to investigate the allegations of the whistleblower Aleksandar Obradovic (if such an investigation is being conducted at all) or, at least, on the measures taken to address the irregularities pointed out by the state audit institution.
Other cases explicitly mentioned in the FH report, where “there was no serious investigation and prosecution,” refer to media articles about the apartment that the contractor in “Belgrade Waterfront” gave to the brother of the former mayor of Belgrade Sinisa Mali, corruption linked to gas pipelines in local municipalities, and Hungarian and Serbian companies allegedly close to the authorities in the two countries, which have been winning the bulk of public lighting contracts in Serbia. The Analysis (on page 13) only states that the reports (of certain organizations and institutions used by FH as a source) were “further supplemented with only 3 individual cases which the author arbitrarily marked as cases of alleged corruption.” The government then cites data from other surveys and reports where no setback in the fight against corruption has been noted (European Commission, Bertelsmann Foundation, WJP).
One of the sources of information for the state of anti-corruption efforts used by FH is the ALARM reports of the prEUgovor coalition. This group of NGOs monitoring the situation regarding Chapters 23 and 24 of EU integration (including Transparency Serbia) has been publishing reports every six months for the past seven years. FH uses the findings of the report from September 2019, which notes some progress on changes to anti-corruption laws, but also that no progress has been made in implementing existing regulations. This was the basis for the prime minister’s office to conclude that the preEUgovor report “does not mention any setbacks regarding corruption in Serbia.”
The government’s response, on the other hand, did not comment on the remaining part of the FH report referring to ALARM: “On the contrary (referring to the lack of progress in the implementation of the anticorruption framework), the existing National anticorruption strategy expired at the end of 2018, and the fact that nine months later Serbia had no new strategy was clear evidence that fighting corruption was not a government priority. The report (referring to the September ALARM report) also noted numerous failures to adopt anticorruption-related legislation or take other measures, all of which suggest a lack of political will to tackle the problem.” The government also failed to address the allegations and assessments from the ALARM report itself, which FH summarily cited – for example, on the unexecuted decisions of the commissioner for information, on the omissions of the Anti-corruption agency, on the unlawful holding of managers of public companies and public administration in “acting” status, on the implementation of the largest infrastructure projects through special laws and interstate agreements instead of through public procurement, and others.
Finally, in defending the view that the rating should not have been decreased, the government also refers to the data from the ranking within the corruption perception index, which is published every year by Transparency International, claiming that FH researchers were wrong when they said that the ratings are worse. This is a valid point, because the FH report itself mixes data from different years, and the researchers did not make an appropriate remark about that. Namely, FH notes an undoubted downward trend compared to the CPI 2016, when the score was 42 (out of the preferred 100) compared to the current one of 39. This was Serbia’s score not only in the CPI 2018 (published in January 2019), but also in CPI 2019 (published in January 2020). However, while in the footnote FH refers to CPI 2018, the text also cites some data from CPI 2019 (placement on the list). As a result, the government’s argument that the score on the TI CPI did not deteriorate between the last two rounds of research is correct. Essentially, if the CPI score was really the reason for the country to get a lower grade in the Nations in transit survey, it means that FH researchers were wrong in a different way than the one pointed out by the government – by ranking Serbia lower only now, instead of doing it last year.
Without going into the correctness of the FH methodology for assessment and its application in this specific report, or the government assessment that FH did not draw the right conclusions, one thing is clear – there are departments in the government that could be employed to analyze observer reports on the state of democracy and the rule of law in Serbia. All that remains is to use these capacities for another type of analysis – what the government needs to do to actually improve the situation.
Author is program director of Transparency Serbia.
Translated by Marijana Simic