Corruption is plaguing the road construction sector in Serbia and the 'European Corridor 10' project in that country is mired in irregularities, a prominent businesswoman and whistleblower told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.
Milica Trifkovi? is director-general of privately-owned road construction company Geoput.
She was speaking to Georgi Gotev, EURACTIV's senior editor.
Ms. Trifkovi?: You are director-general of Geoput, a privately-owned Serbian road construction company with a staff of 100. We are speaking in Brussels, where you have come to denounce corruption in public procurement procedures in your country, meeting representatives of the European Commission and MEPs. What is your message?
I am only speaking about my experience, and the fact that two state-owned companies have been given preference illegally and all sections regarding Corridor 10 have been awarded to those companies, and my company Geoput was eliminated in each and every one of them.
The reasons given were various: on one occasion that we lack the necessary references; on another one that something is missing in our documentation. And in all those cases, the commission for the rights of bidders, which is the highest specialised authority put in place by the state, ruled that Geoput was in its rights.
This commission ruled that the state-owned companies CIP and Institut za puteve should comply with the law and surrender those sections to Geoput. But those companies just ignored the decision of the commission for the rights of bidders, although they were obliged by the law to comply.
You are bringing with you to Brussels folders of documentation and I have had the opportunity to look at the papers. Corridor 10 is also useful to me: it's the international road that links Belgrade to Sofia. The section between the city of Niš and the Bulgarian border is a nightmare for drivers, especially since traffic has increased in recent decades. Why does this road look like hell?
The Serbian minister for infrastructure says all projects are ready. But in fact, not even the design projects or the project documentation are ready: nothing is ready. The minister doesn't tell the truth. On this basis, the Commission for the rights of bidders has declared 13 contracts non-valid.
Do you mean that the money has been spent, but there are no project designs and no construction has taken place?
The money is spent without any legal grounds. Normally all those 13 projects should be cancelled and the money allocated for them should be returned. And reallocated to Geoput, as our documentation was perfect, and our offers were 20-30% cheaper.
By the way, there is another problem: the expropriation of land. It cannot take place without the design project.
But the 'design' appears to be to give the money to the right people, even if it is against the law and even if no construction is taking place.
I don't know what the 'design' is; I am only saying that the public funds are spent illegally. And those obtaining the money are always the same two companies.
I will give another example: we made a bid to the National Investment Plan for two sections, Preljina-Pojate and Novi Pazar-Aljinovici. On those sections our offer was 2.5 million euros, much cheaper than the other bidders. And it was the only complete offer, the only one consistent with the requirements out of the four offers submitted.
However, Minister Verica Kalanovi?, who is in charge of the National Investment Plan, did not attribute to us the tender and gave it to state-owned company CIP for four million euros instead.
On 14 December, the Commission for the rights of bidders requested that these two tenders should be attributed to Geoput, but we received a written answer from Minister Kalanovi? that the tender is annulled because of lack of money.
Then we can estimate the percentage of kickbacks in Serbia at 50%.
I am not going to comment, but I think the people from the European Commission and the MEPs I met have a clear understanding of what is going on.
By the way, international money is involved. Is that right?
Yes, EBRD money, World Bank money…tomorrow maybe EU money.
You have probably taken a risk by coming to Brussels as a whistleblower.
Everybody says I am courageous and I took a risk, but I have no other choice. I tried to approach the media in Serbia, without success. I am aware that pressure will be even higher on me, but I'm responsible for the 100 people who work for my company.
If the minister responsible for infrastructure in Serbia were to tell you, 'you are harming your country, you are bad-mouthing Serbia', how would you respond?
I would tell him: why are YOU working against your country?
Do you have a final message for the EU?
I wonder what EU investors would seek in my country, while people like me have no other choice but to look for opportunities elsewhere?