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Yugoslavia: Serbia Launches High-Profile Anticorruption Campaign, But At What Cost?

Almost any public service or business activity in Serbia requires either personal connections or bribes to accomplish. Fraud is so endemic that even a doctor's appointment or hospital treatment can involve bribery. The Serbian government has launched an anticorruption scheme to fight back against graft. But some activists question the new high-profile campaign because it involves the cooperation of the country's State Security Service. RFE/RL corespondent Alexandra Poolos speaks with a Serbian government official coordinating the project and a representative of Otpor, a well-known government watchdog.

Prague, 8 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In January, Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic declared that battling corruption would be at the top of his government's agenda in 2002.

To best tackle the problem, which infests almost every aspect of modern life in Serbia, Djindjic established an anticorruption council, fronted by prominent public figures. Djindjic also deployed 26 anticorruption teams to 26 different cities and towns in the republic. Each of the three-person teams is composed of a police officer, a representative from the public prosecutor's office, and a member of Serbia's State Security Service (SDB). In addition, the council set up 26 different hot lines that people can call to file complaints about graft.

Serbian state prosecutor Sinisa Simic says the effort is meant to encourage the public to "name and shame" those suspected of corruption. It has resulted in 400 telephone calls and 30 arrests since it began in January and has been recognized as a positive development by the non-governmental organization Transparency International.

Despite the praise this high-profile campaign is attracting both in and out of Serbia, some activists are alarmed at the methods behind the government's plan. In particular, they condemn the participation of the SDB, an organization with its own history of involvement in illegal activities, such as smuggling.

Otpor, the government-watchdog group that helped initiate former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's downfall in October 2000, has been running its own anticorruption campaign. Nenad Konstantinovic heads the project, which sent out 40 monitoring teams and set up 40 phone-in centers across Serbia more than six months ago.

Konstantinovic says it is important that the Serbian government prioritize its fight against corruption, which he calls the "disease" of all transition countries and the "biggest problem in Serbia today." But the long-time activist says the use of the SDB is very troubling to Serbia's citizens, who question what and who the organization will be monitoring.

"We were against that idea from the very beginning, because what will that person from the secret service do? Our impression is that he will monitor the two other persons on the team. On the other hand, people do not have faith in the secret service. Nobody believes in those people," Konstantinovic says. "In our country, the secret service was the main organizer of crime, corruption, [and] especially smuggling. The process of smuggling cigarettes was organized by the secrete service. And the new government didn't reform the secret service at all. We don't have a new law about the secret service. The secret service is not under parliamentary control. Nothing changed. How is it possible that an ordinary citizen will approach that person and give him evidence about any corruption case?"

Alexandra Drecun, the secretary-general of the Serbian Ministry of Finance and Economy, says the SDB will be very important in anticorruption initiatives. Drecun, who is the Serbian government's representative at the Balkan Stability Pact's Anticorruption Initiative, or SPAI, says the SDB is needed to spy on those suspected of corruption.

"It was actually a mistake not to explain this well to the public and also to the experts. The purpose of the secret service is to help us in case we need some special devices and some special measures to be taken," Drecun says. "During the former regime, the police were actually very poorly equipped. So in fighting corruption, it's very important to do everything according to the law and to take some of those secret and undercover measures in a proper manner. So the members from the secret police are very rarely called to help in case we need false money, or any listening device, or wire-tapping, because they are the only ones with the equipment. And they are the only actual part of the system that has the licenses to deal with it. So that's the reason why."

Drecun adds that there is a draft law under debate in parliament to reform the SDB and place it under parliamentary control.

The SDB aside, Otpor's Konstantinovic says there are other formidable challenges to the government's anticorruption initiative. In particular, he says the government will have a hard time uprooting the members of a deeply entrenched organized crime network that rose to power with Milosevic's support.

"The problem is that some people who did such business in the past are doing the same business now," Konstantinovic says. "They have somehow managed to become part of the new [post-Milosevic] system. They are very rich people. It is easy for them to corrupt anyone in the country, even someone who is in the government."

Konstantinovic says the first priority in the fight against corruption must be an active targeting of customs graft. Most imported goods on the market in Serbia are smuggled in. Serbia remains at the center of a network of smugglers that moves trafficked women, drugs, and weapons across the Balkans.

But Konstantinovic doubts whether the new government initiative will have an immediate impact. He believes the program will target only the smaller operators while ignoring more powerful figures in large companies and government agencies.

Drecun of the Serbian Ministry of Finance and Economy disagrees. She says corruption is endemic in Serbia, directly impacting the life of almost every citizen. She says any corrupt act, no matter how small, must be stopped. "There is no small corruption in Serbia, because being such a poor country, if someone collects 100 deutschmarks per day or per week, you can see how rich he can become in a year's time. So we have an open phone so every case of corruption can be recorded," Drecun says.

But Drecun concedes the fight against corruption in Serbia will not be won anytime soon: "Corruption [wasn't] invented in a day. It's a problem that has lasting [effects]. It will last for years. So it's very hard to fight against corruption. And since we were a very poor and isolated country, everything was kept very secret in the government. We had many sources of corruption: licenses, quotas. When the country is under sanctions, everything is under one hand, and that was the hand of Milosevic and his family."

In Serbia, where people struggle every day to meet their basic needs, fighting corruption can seem like putting the proverbial cart before the horse. How can corruption be eliminated when Serbs spend some 60 percent of their income on food alone?

Drecun explains that improving Serbs' standard of living and fighting corruption are two sides of one coin. She says progress is already being made in stabilizing the Serbian economy.

"We have actually achieved a kind of macro-economic stability. And that is very, very important because we have now a hard currency. The dinar is solid enough, because you know that was a field for corruption," Drecun says. "Now we have stability. Our priorities this year are the fight against corruption and improving the living standards for ordinary citizens. They have a lot in common, so we have to work [in a parallel way]."

The most recent member of the Balkan Stability Pact, Serbia now receives counseling from the West and works regionally in the SPAI.

Edric Selous, a SPAI coordinator based in Paris, says regional anticorruption efforts will complement Serbia's new initiatives.

"We do stress that it is the countries themselves that earn the process. It's very much up to the countries to bring themselves out of this problem. However, there are a lot of cross-cutting issues, which are similar in each of the countries. Therefore, it is a regional problem and also there are regional solutions. I think the countries themselves can get together and share expertise to assist in this fight," Selous says.

Drecun says Serbia is already benefiting from regional cooperation with countries like Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, and Slovenia. But she says the regional work has highlighted the lasting damage done by Milosevic and his associates.

"We are at a disadvantage because we are actually the worst-developed country in this region," she says. "But we can take advantage of [the experience of other transitional countries] in the last years."