Anti-Corruption boss: Whistleblowers ‘do not fare well’ in Serbia

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Serbia's new Anti-Corruption Agency faces high expectations to reduce both graft among high-level officials and the need for citizens to 'grease the wheels' of the bureaucracy to receive permits and basic public services. In an exclusive interview with EURACTIV Serbia, the organisation's director, Zorana Markovi?, presents her plan to make institutions 'corruption-resistant' and warns that the country's existing legislation is insufficient to protect whistleblowers. 

Zorana Markovi? is the director of Serbia's Anti-Corruption Agency. Her career has included working on public administration reform for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and serving as legal advisor to the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights. She spoke to EURACTIV Serbia's Smiljana Vukoji?i? Obradovi?.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

2012 is an election year in Serbia. What will change in the monitoring of campaign finance with the new law on the financing of political parties and what authority does the agency have in this area?

As an institution authorised to monitor the financing of political parties, we were most disappointed by the fact that over the past seven years during which the previous law was in force, no one had put monitoring into practice. We are therefore actually starting from scratch.

The new law is good news for us because we have tried to draw a conclusion – from all available reports by experts and bodies authorised to implement the previous law – on what has led to such a poor public image for political parties. We will test the law in the 2012 election and see whether we have set everything up on a sound footing.

Apart from the right to audit financial reports, the agency has also been given the right to monitor election campaigns. The monitors the agency will hire during the election campaign are expected to follow the election campaigns and the dynamic of parties' appearances in the media, on billboards and posters, so that after comparing data we can get the real picture.

We are preparing for the task seriously. We believe it is a serious test, not only for the agency but also for the parties. I do not expect any big results, because one can never solve all problems with one law. We will solve all potential problems at a later time.

So-called minor corruption, which the citizens face when carrying out everyday activities, is also widespread in Serbia. What is the 'cure' for that issue?

Minor and everyday corruption is also the result of our habits. Our position is that there is no minor and major corruption: There is only the violation of laws and failure to abide by the rules and procedures.

Minor corruption is the result of unclear internal procedures in institutions or of the managers' unlimited discretion, who can say "I won't approve this for you like that" or "You have to do it the way I tell you to".

It is not up to the citizens to stop corruption first, rather it is up to the institutions to assure the citizens that they will provide them with a service without expecting payment for that service.

Minor corruption and the perception that the institutions are bad is a result of the citizens' bad experiences. Whether it is their own experience, or the experience of a family member, friend or co-worker – that is irrelevant. It is enough for one citizen to "skip the line," to get something done faster or cheaper and all efforts will amount to nothing.

That is the level of awareness we have to work on and reach if we want to move forward as a society and a state, regardless of whether we will join the EU tomorrow or in 20 years' time. The integrity plans are to contribute to that the most.

'Integrity plans' more explicitly defining the functioning of institutions have been announced for next year. When do you expect that novelty to yield results?

The biggest novelty in the Serbian legal system is the obligation of all state bodies to have integrity plans. Through the integrity plans, our aim is to standardise institutional procedures and bring discretion rights down to an objective level. That means services related to any kind of license, permit and approval the citizens seek from state bodies will not be able to be provided differently depending on the municipality or state body.

For example, it should no longer be possible for construction permits in Vranje [southern Serbia] to be issued in one manner and faster than in Subotica [near the border with Hungary]. Sectoral integrity plans are to be drawn up in December, which allows each institution to adopt its own plan … in 2012. We expect to see real effects only as of 2013. Preventive mechanisms are, after all, somewhat slower than repressive ones.

You mentioned that work you are not authorised to do is expected of you. What is your role in suppressing widespread corruption in Serbia?

It would be easy if the agency were the institution everyone had been waiting for to solve all problems. We are just a cog in the system that plays its part. Our job is to set up a more corruption-resistant system through the mechanisms at our disposal.

We should, however, not be expected to unveil scandals. Until the founding of the agency, no institution had engaged in long-term planning of measures for preventing corruption.

How do you assess cooperation with state bodies?

Cooperation with state bodies is slower than with other institutions. That, in short, is our conclusion. There are institutions and ministries that react quickly, there are some that react more slowly. That can always be improved and we insist on that. The state apparatus is slow in all countries in the world. It is a bureaucratic system that should be fought against.

Whistleblowers can play a key part in revealing corruption. When will their protection be enhanced in Serbia?

The protection of whistle blowers is an issue that remains unresolved in our legal, judicial and institutional systems, and of course in practice. As a state, we also had a recommendation by GRECO [a Council of Europe body monitoring corruption] from the previous round of evaluation to increase practical protection mechanisms. We have seen that the people who muster the courage to report their suspicions do not fare well.

While making the rule book [of the Anti-Corruption Agency on whistleblowers], for which a mixed working group had been put together, we realised that Serbia will probably need a special law to regulate the protection of whistleblowers. We are already working on that and running a campaign with the commissioner for information and the ombudsman to have the law passed as soon as possible.

Have you already gotten any response?

There are positive signs from the Serbian government. The upcoming elections will determine whether there will be enough time for this government to deal with the matter or whether it will have to wait for a new government. Meanwhile, we are preparing models of possible legal solutions that would be most applicable for Serbia.

The making of a new anti-corruption strategy is currently under way. What will it bring?

It will be a general strategic anti-corruption document that Serbia will pass for a period of five years, 2011 to 2016, with clearly defined goals regarding what Serbia wants to achieve during that five-year period in the battle against corruption. By the end of December, in accordance with the deadline set by the Serbian government, we will have a document that can enter parliamentary procedure.

What is new? The focus is on the implementation of laws, execution, institutional strengthening. When you look at the level of implementation of these [current] documents, you see that over 90% of laws that had been planned have been adopted and that all the institutions have been founded.

It is very clear and logical that we now have to strengthen those institutions, fully use their capacities, deal with the implementation of laws, obtain effective results and ensure the prevention of corruption through such work.

A report by the European Commission states that you should be given more options for monitoring property deeds. What is your view on the matter?

I did not read the European Commission report that way. I read the part referring to the agency as a recommendation to grant the agency sufficient resources to do its work, meaning that support to the Agency should continue and its resources should be increased, because we are an institution in the making. In that sense, we enjoy great support from the EU.

We have sufficient capacity for checking the property of public officials to the extent we have determined. The extent of our check-up this year focussed on MPs, cabinet members, the president of the republic, 23 mayors, and the management of public companies at state level.

We cannot run an investigation into officials' property. The agency's task is to enable public monitoring that prevents people from amassing wealth by taking advantage of a public post, while they are at the post.

We have the right to file misdemeanour reports and forward them to the prosecutor's office with suspicion of crime when, after an audit of property, there is still suspicion that not all property has been reported or that the data do not match.

We have done so in several cases. I have to say we have established fairly good cooperation with officials and state bodies. We believe that by cooperation with officials, through education and information on their obligations and the consequences of failing to fulfil those obligations, we can achieve better results than by calling them out and punishing them.

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