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Fifth Round of GRECO Evaluation: Important recommendations and chance to fulfil them this time

Transparency Serbia assesses that the fifth round of the GRECO evaluation contains several significant recommendations, the fulfilment of which could fundamentally improve the legal framework for the fight against corruption. At the same time, the new parliamentary convocation and the new Government of Serbia will have the opportunity to approach the execution of these international obligations much more seriously than their predecessors. Serbia has not yet fully fulfilled the recommendations from the previous round of evaluation, although the first deadline expired in 2016. This time, GRECO dealt with mechanisms for preventing corruption at the top executive power and the police.

According to Transparency's view, the recommendations that could have the most significant effect refer to: regulating conflicts of interest among advisers to the President, prime minister and ministers and strengthening the system for controlling the reports of executive power officials; regulation of informal lobbying; enabling citizens to file a complaint with the Commissioner when the Government of Serbia or the President of the Republic refuse or ignore the request for access to information; obligation to hold public hearings on all laws; limiting the immunity of members of the Government in the case of corrupt crimes, expanding the jurisdiction of the Prosecutor's Office for organised crime and strengthening the Government's Council for the fight against corruption.

For almost two decades, Transparency Serbia has been pointing to the need to legislate a possible conflict of interest among advisers holders of the highest public positions because of the possibility of actually influencing the making of important decisions. Counsellors are not public officials but people who often perform other jobs, so they cannot be subject to the same prohibitions and restrictions as officials. On the other hand, it is necessary to introduce rules based on which they would be obliged to disclose whether they have any private interest in the issue on which they are providing advice and to ensure compliance with those obligations. In addition, it is necessary to ensure the transparency of information about who all the advisers of public officials are and what is the legal basis of their engagement, in connection with which there were many doubts and no answers from the Government. A recommendation was also given to the Agency to regularly check reports on the assets and income of executive power officials.

Although the Law on Lobbying was adopted on the recommendation of GRECO, which was positively evaluated at the time, it is essential that the same institution has now shown its willingness to point out the two most significant shortcomings of that law, which TS pointed out. Namely, GRECO has now recognised as a problem that this law regulates only lobbying that takes place according to formal rules and not through informal contacts of lobbyists with the President, prime minister, ministers and their advisors. Another big problem that GRECO points to is that there is no obligation for officials and state authorities to publish who of the formal and informal lobbyists have approached them.

It is crucial that GRECO recognised the necessity for the right to access information about the work of the Government and the President of the Republic to receive effective legal protection. The Law on Free Access to Information was amended at the end of last year. One of the key demands of the Coalition for Freedom of Access to Information was that citizens could file a complaint with the Commissioner when any authority rejects such a request. However, the legislator kept the system according to which appeals against six bodies (Government, Parliament, President, Constitutional Court, Supreme Court, Public Prosecutor of the Republic) are not allowed, and added the National Bank of Serbia to that list. In the absence of the possibility of appeal to the Commissioner, citizens, journalists and associations can only initiate lawsuits before the Administrative Court, the resolution of which has been waiting for years.

It is essential that GRECO pointed out the problem of non-compliance with the rules on holding public hearings in the preparation of the law, referring to the Transparency study on the weaknesses of the legislative procedure. GRECO additionally recommended that the reasons and impacts of changes in the law that occur after the end of the public hearing be explained.

It is very important that GRECO directly called on the Government to strengthen the Council for the fight against corruption by electing proposed members and acting on the reports of this body.

In terms of repression, the recommendation to expand the jurisdiction of the Prosecutor's Office for an organised crime for possible corruption of all high-ranking officials, including the President of the Republic, who is currently omitted, is of great importance. In its reports, GRECO cites cases of suspected corruption of members of the Government that were not investigated and calls for the possibility of expressly abolishing the immunity of Government members from criminal prosecution for corruption offences. 

In addition, GRECO made a number of other potentially valuable recommendations, including checking the integrity of candidates for ministerial positions before their election, rules for monitoring conflicts of interest among cabinet chiefs, adopting special plans and codes to prevent corruption at the top of the executive branch, strengthening the system internal audits in ministries and the competence of the Agency for the Prevention of Corruption and providing advice to officials on issues of integrity.

A particular part of the report is dedicated to measures to prevent corruption in the police. In this section, the most important recommendations refer to the prevention of political influence in the deployment of police officers and a more transparent selection of police leaders. It is also foreseen to adopt planning documents, expand the Code of Police Ethics, organise training and provide advice regarding its implementation, security checks on integrity issues, rotation of police officers in sensitive positions, recording of additional work, monitoring of the practice of receiving gifts in the police, making investigation of complaints on the police sufficiently transparent and to promoting the protection of whistleblowers.