“The results of the fight against corruption will be visible soon. Citizens will see that institutions are doing their job. The key question for us is who stole the people’s money and how do we return it. State institutions will undertake all necessary steps as soon as possible. Citizens will see that it is possible for the state to lead a tougher fight against corruption and crime. Institutions must keep in mind that no one is protected, regardless of political or any other affiliation.”
It was with these words, at the end of 2012, that the most important (not yet de jure but certainly de facto) man of the new government, the First Deputy Prime Minister of Serbia in charge of the fight against corruption and crime, Aleksandar Vucic, announced that the fight against corruption would be a priority of the new government.
For many citizens these words, which they would hear again many, many times, were pleasant and encouraging. There really were many reasons for that. The former government left the country facing major corruption problems which it inherited to a large extent from the Milosevic regime, but to a large extent also produced itself.
An illustrative indicator of the overall situation are the assessments and positions of our country on the Global Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), which is published every year by the global anti-corruption network Transparency International. The latest CPI, for 2020, was published just a few days ago.
Let me remind you that this index is the most well-known respectable ranking of countries according to the perception of corruption in the public sector. It covers almost all countries in the world and ranks them from 0 (worst) to 100 (ideal) based on several parallel surveys conducted in each country. Our country first appeared on the Index in 2000, as FR Yugoslavia with an inherited, frighteningly low grade from the Milosevic period (considering that the assessment methodology has changed in the meantime, the 1.3 we received at the time is approximately equivalent to today’s 13-15 points). Since 2001, after the fall of the Milosevic regime, the assessment has been continuously improving. The annual assessments, of course, were still bad and confirmed the state of endemic corruption, but they improved each year. This constant progress was encouraging, at least. It was very slow, but evident. It was moving at a snail’s pace, but at least it was moving forward. However, in 2008, for the first time, the assessment didn’t improve and stagnation began. The following few years passed without any positive progress. The stagnation, with the inevitable harmful consequences for the economy and the legal order of the country, lasted until the arrival of the new government, which proclaimed the fight against corruption as one of the absolute priorities of the state.
With the arrival of the new government, things really started to change. Unfortunately, not for the better. On the contrary, the last eight Corruption Perceptions Indices (2013-20) not only didn’t show progress, but confirmed a continuous decline. From year to year, Serbia was ranked worse and scored fewer and fewer points. Thus, the number of points was reduced from 42 in 2013 to 38 in 2020, and the position on the ranking list fell from 72nd to 94th place. Specifically, Serbia is tied for the 94-101st places with Ethiopia, Suriname, Tanzania, Peru, Sri Lanka, Brazil and Kazakhstan. With a score of 38 points, Serbia has as many as 5 points fewer than the global average, 19 points fewer than the European average, and as many as 26 fewer than the average of EU countries. Although it was upheld as a “state priority” all this time, the fight against corruption in Serbia in 2020 received the worst grade in the last eight years.
Even without CPI, we can see lots of evidence for this.
It is true that the government created numerous anti-corruption acts, laws, strategies, action plans, signed and ratified almost all international anti-corruption documents, became a member of almost all international anti-corruption associations, and of course accompanied all this with huge media coverage. But laws are still grossly and obviously violated, no strategy or action plan has actually been realized, the commitments made by signing international documents are not being respected, and the recommendations of GRECO or the FATF are not being implemented.
At the same time, things that are unacceptable by the standards of an even remotely civilized country keep happening. The vast majority of state-owned companies are illegally run by people whose terms have expired, which is a source of enormous risks to overall legality, and especially to the public funds they manage. The largest infrastructure projects, practically as a rule, are not implemented according to the laws on public procurement and public-private partnership, but according to special rules that are created for specific cases. The right of the public to control the disposal of public money and other resources is being circumvented on a daily basis, and the provisions of the law on free access to information of public importance, data confidentiality and budget system are being turned into caricatures. And of course, the data on the criminal prosecution (or lack thereof) of those guilty of corruption, especially those who are very close to the government, is quite depressing.
The result of such a state of affairs is actually quite logical. Eight years have been wasted. The huge concentration of power and support of the citizens were not used for the fight against corruption, but for something completely different. In fact, the only indisputably valuable result (although we paid much too high a price for it) could be a reminder of the truth – the louder a government announces a “fierce and ruthless” fight against corruption, the more underwhelming the results of that fight will be. A government which is sincerely against corruption, which is not involved in it and does not produce it, does not talk much about corruption, but is consistently and silently suppressing and crushing it.
This truth should never be forgotten, especially while the government continues to persistently shout from all its media mouthpieces that the fight against corruption is its priority.
The author is a lawyer and a former Commissioner for information of public importance and protection of personal data.
Translated by Marijana Simic