“It is horrendous to even think that we tried to steal some money through buying respirators. The people who think or insinuate that, do not wish their country well. We are in a situation where other countries are using their security services to acquire respirators. If our choice today is between complete process of public procurement and preserving human lives, we choose to preserve lives.”
The prime minister of Serbia gave this statement for TV Pink, regarding some open questions about the purchase of respirators for our hospitals. She added that “immediately after the state of emergency is lifted, we will provide the public with a full account of those procurements and how much money we spent.”
The willingness to simply maliciously disqualify (“they do not wish their country well”) people whose interest in certain things is unpleasant to the government is evident. And, of course, unacceptable, especially since there were no accusations or insinuations in the questions posed by the NGO Transparency Serbia and the investigative journalists which motivated this reaction. Moreover, they expressed an understanding for the possibility that, in the current situation, the secrecy of some data on the manner of procurement would be temporarily justified. It was only, justifiably, emphasized that it is difficult to imagine any valid reason for not publishing the information on what exactly was bought and how much money was paid for it.
By the way, the story about the lack of reliable information about this important issue was started by Brnabic herself with that famous statement from the beginning of the epidemic – “the number of respirators is a state secret”. Aleksandar Vucic continued the confusion, revealing this secret by stating that we have 1,008 respirators, that 573 were bought, have arrived and were deployed, and 2,200 additional were purchased and are still to arrive. Later, the public heard from the president of the SNS parliamentary group, Martinovic, that “a total of 3,967 respirators were ordered”, and “585 new devices were delivered” to Serbia. And a little later, from another high-ranking official of SNS and the government, Marija Obradovic, the following: “When this started, we had about 1,000 respirators, about 700 of which were being used by regular patients, cardiovascular, oncological. So very few respirators were available and that meant certain death for many of us who were infected, or would need respirators. We managed to pay for 4,000 respirators thanks to the truly superhuman efforts of both president Vucic and the government of Serbia. Of course, due to the situation all over the world, due to the delivery deadline, we will get about 1,500 respirators by the end. We will be refunded for the rest.”
It is hard to shake off the impression that this creates confusion rather than informing the citizens. Isn’t it obvious that, even with the most charitable attitude towards the perpetrators of this kind of public information, the Serbian public knows practically nothing about this important matter?
How many respirators did we have before the COVID 19 epidemic? How many do we have now? How many did we buy during the epidemic? How many were delivered? How much public money was spent on it? How much do we know about the price and other conditions of purchase, especially about the quality of the respirators? How much do we know about whether the purchase of an obviously huge number of respirators (which cost tens, maybe hundreds of millions of euros) was justified by “saving human lives?” Or is that claim from the prime minister ungrounded? The statement of another, formally most relevant high official of the government and the ruling party, minister of health Zlatibor Loncar makes this statement by the prime minister sound very different – “the largest number of patients that were on respirators concurrently due to coronavirus was 147, and on the day the state of emergency was proclaimed, we had 408 free respirators!”
So what was the reason for the purchase of several thousand new ones?
The answers to many important questions are missing. And the public, the citizens of Serbia, have the right to those answers; it’s their money after all. There’s nothing unusual about expecting full disclosure. This quite normal expectation is exacerbated by the tragic circumstances of the pandemic. When full disclosure is missing or when there’s something dubious, it naturally leads to the sorts of reactions we can see all around us.
In Slovenia, for example, because of suspicions that respirators were purchased at massively inflated prices, with 100% advance payments, and that the importing company was selected under political pressure, the citizens are demonstrating in several cities, the opposition is announcing interpellation of the relevant minister or the entire government, and the state Anti-corruption commission and the police have initiated monitoring processes. In B&H, for more or less the same reasons, with a couple more tragi(comedi)c elements (a company that usually processes raspberries was entrusted to procure respirators), an investigation by the prosecution, which is even investigating the cabinet of the prime minister, is ongoing.
Regardless of the silence of relevant bodies, our public also got fragments of similar information. For example, that the fate of a large sum of money from the national health insurance fund designated to the purchase of respirators will be decided before the court in Podgorica! This money was paid 100% in advance to a supplier who hired another intermediary, a quite unusual one (not a raspberry processor, in our case it was a beautician!), who introduced even more additional intermediaries into the deal, with millions of euros of compensation at each instance.
The second week since the state of emergency was lifted is slowly passing. For any government, and especially one which took only a few days to prepare and confirm (contrary to the Constitution, without parliament) a complete rebalancing of the state budget or organize the famous “helicopter money” operation by borrowing and giving out EUR 100 to each citizen of Serbia, those two weeks should be enough time to prepare a “full account,” which was announced in the prime minister’s theatrical and exalted reaction as forthcoming “immediately” after the state of emergency ends.
But we still have no account, and the prime minister and the government remain silent.
If this is their way to “absolve” the story of the respirators (which, having in mind their attitude towards past promises, wouldn’t surprise me), then the prime minister’s “horrendous,” and especially her “don’t wish their country well” would, actually, perfectly describe them.
The author is a lawyer and a former Commissioner for information of public importance and protection of personal data
Translated by Marijana Simic