Serbia readies for long struggle against corruption

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Serbia's new Anti-Corruption Agency faces high expectations to reduce graft among high-level officials. In an exclusive interview with EURACTIV Serbia, the organisation's director, Zorana Markovi?, presented her plan to make institutions "corruption-resistant" and warned that the country's existing legislation is insufficient to protect whistleblowers.

Markovi?, who had previously worked with the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to improve Serbian public administration, said the country's institutions and legislation are adequate to address corruption. However, she said the government bodies have been reticent to fully use the mechanisms and laws at their disposal.

"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," she said.

Markovi? said "90% of laws that had been planned have been adopted and that all the institutions have been founded." As a result, Serbia's 2011-2016 anti-corruption strategy, to be presented before the parliament by the end of the year, will focus on the strengthening and implementation of already existing bodies and rules.

Few results before 2013

The director warned that many of actions the Agency is taking could take some time to bear fruit. One feature of Serbia's anti-corruption strategy is that public institutions are to adopt "integrity plans" by 2012 which more tightly define their rules and procedures.

The hope is that this would reduce corruption by standardising processes across the country and providing less discretion for local officials in granting services. However, Markovi? warned that the effects of this were unlikely to be felt before 2013. "Preventive mechanisms are, after all, somewhat slower than repressive ones," she said.

Markovi? also said work had been slowed by the sluggish reaction of Serbian public institutions. "Cooperation with state bodies is slower than with other institutions. That, in short, is our conclusion," she said.

While the agency has monitored the properties of numerous public officials and can refer individuals to state prosecutors in case of suspicion, Markovi? stressed her organisation is not an investigative or prosecutorial body. "We should … not be expected to unveil scandals," she said.

Instead, the agency will focus on the long-term challenges of institutions' culture of corruption, she said. "Our job is to set up a more corruption-resistant system through the mechanisms at our disposal."

"Until the founding of the agency, no institution had engaged in long-term planning of measures for preventing corruption," she said.

Referring to a European Commission report on Serbia, she said: "I read the part referring to the agency as a recommendation to grant [it] 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."

Insufficient protection of whistleblowers

In contrast, for whistleblowers, Markovi? argued the existing legislation is insufficient.

"The protection of whistleblowers is an issue that remains unresolved in our legal, judicial and institutional systems and … 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," she said.

"We have seen that the people who muster the courage to report their suspicions do not fare well."

Markovi? indicated that the Anti-Corruption Agency is pushing for a whistleblower shield law.

While Markovi? said she had received "positive signs" from the government, she was uncertain whether a whistleblower protection law would be passed before the parliamentary elections to be held no later than May 2012.

To read the interview in full, please click here.

Serbia's current government was elected under an unabashedly pro-European platform as the 'For a European Serbia' coalition. The country has not yet been recognised as an official candidate for European Union membership, however, and corruption is one a key criterion on which aspiring members are judged.

In October 2011, the European Commission's official opinion on Serbian candidacy reacted positively the country's efforts against corruption, citing the foundation of the Anti-Corruption Agency in particular.

Graft and bribery remain serious problems. In 2010, Transparency International's corruption perception index placed Serbia 78th? in the world, on a par with Colombia and Lesotho.

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