There is nothing wrong or illogical about the media investigating contracts that governments enter into with private expert firms or consortia. On the contrary, the media’s effort to satisfy the legitimate interests of the public in connection with legal affairs with private entities paid by the government with public money is always justified and welcome, especially when the government, without any acceptable reason, tries to conceal the content or the very existence of such a contract.
Accordingly, the media recently informed us that, supposedly in response to the energy crisis in Serbia, the Government made the decision to hire a consultant to solve the “energy challenges” that await our country. The Minister of Finance Sinisa Mali, on behalf of the Government of Serbia, signed a document titled “Support to the Republic of Serbia in solving the current energy crisis and developing a long-term energy strategy for the country”, and the Government decided to directly entrust the job to the Norwegian company Rystad Energy and to pay Rystad 1.55 million dollars by November 15th. It also instructed the Ministry of Finance to “prepare a proposal on how to secure the funds” and to ensure that payments are made “from the account of the General Secretariat of the Government”.
Both the contract and the Government’s conclusion confirming the deal are classified as “strictly confidential”. As an explanation, it was stated that “otherwise, the Republic of Serbia would be obliged to provide certain information, the disclosure of which it believes would harm its essential security interests.”
Even at first glance, we can tell that there is an obvious question we don’t have an answer to – how exactly does the choice of Rystad Energy eliminate the alleged potential danger?
Regardless, even if we assume that some specific information really can be seen as a potential risk to the country’s security and therefore needs to be classified, that cannot be a reason to hide all information about that contract from the public. Security interests are no justification for concealing the entire arrangement. It is more likely, in fact it is certain, that declaring it strictly confidential was intended to cover up something else, something illegal.
The current Government of Serbia is in a so-called technical mandate, with narrowed powers and, pursuant to Article 17 of the Law on the Government, it can only engage in ongoing affairs. For a long time, this government helped bring the energy system to a catastrophic state with its dilettante moves, while ignoring the warnings of local experts. Signing a contract with a foreign partner that binds Serbia to years of future cooperation is not an ongoing affair.
Provisions of the Law on Public Procurement certainly apply here. This is evident already in Article 2 of this law, which obliges all users of the budget to apply it, and then articles 3, 5, 7, 8 and a number of other provisions that mandate transparency and the greatest possible competition in the public procurement procedure. The direct awarding of the contract, without a public procurement or any other procedure, to Rystad Energy, or anyone else, is a flagrant violation of all mentioned provisions.
Finally, I don’t need to emphasize that things such as secrecy of payments and improvised contract payments from the account of an entity that is neither a contracting party nor a contract beneficiary are in direct violation of both fundamental principles and a number of specific provisions of the Law on the Budget System and the Law on the Budget.
Perhaps the most significant, and the most humiliating for the country, result of this departing Government is Serbia’s ranking on the Global Corruption Perception Index, which is the worst in the past decade.
Both international and domestic experts see the great – and growing – non-transparency of the Government’s work as the engine of endemic corruption, especially when it comes to the disposal of public money and resources. A government that hastily concludes a contract such as this one must be aware that this will inevitably stink of corruption.
This contract, concluded by a government in a technical mandate, in violation of several laws, signed by a legally incompetent minister and paid for by a legally incompetent general secretariat is just some kind of aberratio ictus (a missed shot, an unintended consequence), a completely inappropriate attempt to legalize the factual arrangement that the president of the Republic – also legally incompetent to do so – spoke about before the contract’s disclosure. And the effort to cover up and justify the whole thing by abusing and violating the Law on Data Secrecy is nothing more than gobbledygook.
Translated by Marijana Simic