Corruption is as old as society and exists in every country in the world. Often it floats just below the surface, taken for granted, tolerated, even accepted as part of the human condition. Corruption becomes newsworthy, however, when two conditions are met: when it becomes massive - when it is diffused through all of a society’s institutions and distorts the normal functioning both of the system and the morals of the population; and when it becomes possible to write about it. Both of these conditions have been fulfilled in my country, Serbia.
I have been living in Serbia since my birth. Even under the regime of Slobodan Milosevic corruption was not as significant as it is today. The worst thing is that corruption in Serbia has become a fashion, a trend – you have to be “in”, your material circumstances are much better if you participate in the game, and money means power and rank.
I live in a small town near the Hungarian border that was founded in the 14th century. Its existence throughout the centuries at a multinational crossroads has endowed it with an abundance of creativity, spirituality, and a love of art that give my town its unique atmosphere and its noteworthy artistic and architectural heritage. My town was a charming and peaceful place to live until the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. Then everything changed. Two huge waves of refugees arrived in my town from Bosnia –Herzegovina in 1992 and from Croatia in 1995. The bombing of Serbia by NATO forces in 1999 left significant traces on my town as well. Even though my town is a small one, nowadays it is a haven for big criminals. These are people whose names we dare not mention, or they make us regret it. These are people who deal drugs in public, who are involved in prostitution and usury.
Reporting them to the police is futile. They have paid off the police and courts. The files with charges against them are deliberately hushed up, locked away in secret drawers. We know this from a letter written by a group of honest policemen to the Ministry of Police and to the Public Prosecutor for organized corruption that was published by an on-line newspaper. The letter revealed the names of the policemen and prosecutors who had accepted bribes and the extent of their logistical support of criminal activity. Yet, despite a flurry of denunciations, soul-searching, and a few low-level arrests, the “big bosses” are still working.
Corruption has only got worse, infecting all government services, institutions and offices. Like a virus, it permeates the pores of society, and everything has started to rot from the inside. First, the police co-operated with criminals, and then they organized criminal activities themselves. Customs officials co-operated with smugglers. Those in position of influence banded together to steal public funds and property, creating a unique theft oligarchy.
Although I have been living under such corrupt circumstances for the last 20 years, I do not want my children to learn to live in such a corrupted society. One day, at the end of the school term, my son came home and told me that a certain boy’s father had come to school with a pair of new sneakers and a thick envelope, which he’d handed over to the physical education teacher. The teacher accepted the gift without comment and granted an “A” grade to this boy, who was, in fact, one of his worst students. How does one explain such behavior to a child?
My friend is an accountant at a book-keeping firm. She told me about a construction client who had received a visit from the tax authorities. The tax officer found that the company had failed to pay taxes on the construction of certain apartment buildings. The officer intended to file a complaint, but after she received a phone call she suddenly changed her mind. Apparently, the caller reminded her about a bribe she had received in the past that might be revealed if she pressed ahead with the charges.
The results of a 2010 survey(1) conducted for the United Nations Development Program, probably understate the extent to which the average citizen is affected by bribery and corruption. According to the survey, the inhabitants of Serbia mostly bribe their doctors, police officers and government clerks. Almost 40% of those surveyed claimed that they themselves, or their relatives, had bribed somebody. Eleven percent confirmed that they were involved in corruption, and 37% said they had been asked to pay a bribe for services.
I used to work for a large, profitable transportation company. Every day our drivers needed extra cash to pay off traffic policemen, who would routinely stop them for minor infractions and violations. Even when they had proper documentation the police cited them for nonsensical issues. For example, one driver had a form copied from the webpage of the Ministry of Police, but the policeman who stopped him was not satisfied with its shape. It was printed in “landscape” format, rather than “portrait” format, so he refused to accept it. He detained the driver for two hours, until the driver finally offered him a certain sum. Once he had pocketed the money, the officer let the driver go without punishment.
This scenario is repeated endlessly throughout Serbia, and everyone knows the drill. When a policeman stops you, you can be sure he will find a reason to fine you, and his first sentence will be something like: “Do you know that for this violation you have to pay 5.000 RSD (50 EUR), or I will send you to court?” I should point out that the average income in Serbia is approximately 100-250 EUR per month, making this initial offer far beyond most people’s means. So the negotiation begins:
The accused: “I do not have that sum of money.”
The policeman: “If you pay 2000 RSD (20 EUR) I will let you go.”
The accused: “That is too much for me, I have only 500 RSD (5 EUR), if you want them.”
The policeman: “OK, I accept, you can go.”
And so it goes, 500 RSD here, 1000 RSD there – a whole subterranean system of quasi-taxation that benefits those in power and leaves the rest of the population frustrated and resentful.
So how does Donald Duck fit into this tale of woe? Ljubisa Milanovic is a Special Advisor to the Ministry of Health, tasked with fighting corruption. Recently he appeared on a popular program on state run television to tell the following story:
“Two months ago I went to the City Police Station in Belgrade with complete documents and evidence prepared to press charges in a case. When I arrived, the head of the department was watching a Donald Duck cartoon on his computer. He ignored me until the action had quieted down and finally asked about the purpose of my visit. He asked me if I had all the documents and when I answered ‘yes’ he told me, ‘In that case you can bring criminal charges against this person yourself.’ Unfortunately, the cartoon never ended and it continues even to this day.”
After Milanovic’s appearance, the Minister of Health, Zoran Stankovic, in an interview with “Danas” (“Today”) newspaper, stated that his Special Advisor – who had just publicly accused the Prosecutor for organized crime, the BIA (Serbia’s FBI equivalent), and the Ministry of Justice of obstructing the fight against corruption – had merely given his personal opinion, but that he would not be fired for now. (2) I was therefore not surprised to learn, as I was about to submit this piece for publication, that on January 5th President Boris Tadic and his cabinet finally forced Milanovic to resign.(3)
Milanovic has been a source of irritation to the Minister of Health from the day he was nominated as Special Advisor. There was tremendous pressure not to appoint Milanovic because he was well-known as the former head of the “Poskok” or “Viper” group, tasked with solving the worst crimes in the country. His nomination represented a threat to many people in power. Milanovic is known for his qualities of integrity and fairness both of which have also caused him a great deal of suffering in our rotten system. His is a lonely voice, crying out amid Serbia’s rampant corruption. I hope it will not be permanently silenced.
According to Transparency International, an organization whose stated mission is “… to create change towards a world free of corruption,” Serbia ranked 78th in the “Corruption Perceptions Index” or CPI rankings in 2010, falling to 86th place in 2011. TI ranks 183 countries on a scale of 0-10, where 0 means that a country is perceived as highly corrupt, and 10 means that a country is perceived as very clean. Out of all former Yugoslav countries, the highest ranked is Slovenia, which takes 35th place with a score of 5.9; Croatia and Montenegro share the 66th place; Macedonia is 69th; and Bosnia-Herzegovina ranks even lower than Serbia, taking 91st place with a score of 3.2. (4)
All of these countries experienced a transition period after the break-up in the early 1990s. Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, which experienced the most violent and protracted upheavals, are, not surprisingly, lagging behind their neighbors in many development indices. Unfortunately for Serbia, many of the socio-economic coping mechanisms that characterize its transition – an underground economy, irregular economic and business transactions, smuggling and black-marketeering, workplace theft, illegal construction and above all bribery and corruption - have since become endemic. That is, they are accepted practices and are no longer a moral issue for many people.
Additionally, due to the lack of adequate legal procedures and regulations these practices are not treated as serious violations, and there are virtually no consequences for engaging in them. The circumstances that caused them and which permanently reproduce them are known: unsolved constitutional and statehood questions, economic depression, hyperinflation, a drastic pauperization and the disintegration of social structures, a high rate of unemployment, internal political turmoil, and lack of cooperation between political parties.
Making matters even worse is the fact that two-thirds of the country’s broadcasters and publications are either directly or indirectly controlled by the state, according to the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia’s Center for Investigative Journalism.
Investigative journalism is not widespread, both due to economic hardship and the fact that reporters who want to dig into corruption need the support of their employer and coworkers. The stories that have been done have exposed the construction mafia, the road construction mafia and corruption at the Port of Belgrade, to name a few.
Serbia’s government did set up an Anti-Corruption Council in 2001, tasked with evaluating anti-corruption initiatives and suggesting measures to make this fight more effective. However, the Council’s most important reports, which have been presented to the government, are still being “processed” and so far remain unresolved. The individuals and companies mentioned in these reports are under the protection of the government. By contrast, criminal charges that accuse the President of the Anti-Corruption Council of slander, brought by individuals mentioned in the Council’s reports, are processed immediately.
Corruption has to be prevented; it is not enough only to talk about it. If we want to reduce corruption and improve living conditions for all inhabitants of Serbia, and to pave the way for a better future for our children, we must change the law that carries corruption in itself. We must also professionalize our civil service by ensuring that they are competent, well-trained, and paid enough that they needn’t rely on bribes to live decently. There must be laws to prevent nepotism, cronyism and “brotherhoods”. It is imperative to implement a system of internal financial controls, independent of current political trends, to ensure that taxpayer money goes into projects that benefit society and not into the pockets of politicians.
The most important change however, is a shift in consciousness. The Serbian people must change the way they think about corruption. If most Serbians continue to accept corruption as inevitable, if they do not unite and demand an end to the status quo, if the will of the people is not behind this change, then we should not expect somebody else to do it for us.
(1) “How to initiate the anticorruption measures in Serbia”-performed by THC Medium under the Project of UNDP
(2)(“Danas” December 15, 2011)
(3) “Alo” newspaper 05.01.2012.
(4)For Serbian statistics visit: www.transparentnost.org.rs; for English and to check your country’s ranking visit: www.transparency.org
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.
Take action! This post was submitted in response to Voices of Our Future 2012: Frontline Journals.