Business Joomla Themes by Justhost Reviews

Corruption prevention in the executive branch - useful GRECO recommendations have not yet been implemented

If Serbia were to implement the recommendations it received in March 2022 from GRECO (Group of Countries for Combating Corruption) – a body established by the Council of Europe – it would significantly improve the mechanisms for combating corruption in the work of the executive. However, very little has been done so far, even though the first set deadline for implementation expired on September 30, 2023, according to the analysis published today by Transparency Serbia.

Fourteen recommendations related to the suppression of corruption within the executive branch (the President of the Republic, the Government and ministers) were the subject of this analysis (the remaining ten refer to the police). Based on these recommendations, Serbia was supposed to amend several laws, but work has only started on one. Amendments to the Law on Prevention of Corruption were on public debate in August 2023, but the reviewed draft has not been turned into a bill to date. Moreover, the report of the public debate, which had to be published in early September, is still not available to the public.

On the other hand, work has not even started on amendments to the Law on Lobbying, the Law on Free Access to Information of Public Importance, the Law on Government, the Rules of Procedure of the National Assembly and other regulations.

The implementation of GRECO recommendations represents one of the critical priorities for the fight against corruption in Serbia, as the European Commission states in its annual report. Not only has the performance been poor so far, but the plans do not even indicate that it will be significantly better in the near future. Thus, in the proposal of the new anti-corruption strategy – the Government announced it would be adopted soon – the goal for Serbia is to fulfil only 35% of GRECO's recommendations from the fifth round of evaluation.

Among others, GRECO requested that the integrity of government members be checked before they take office. In order to achieve that goal, the Law on Prevention of Corruption, the Law on Government and the Rules of Procedure of the National Assembly were to be amended. Since none of that has been done, Serbia will soon get another government without previously checking whether any of the ministers have interests that could harmfully affect the performance of public office. For the same reason, integrity checks will not be performed for special advisers and chiefs of cabinets of members of the new Government.

Amendments to the laws were not necessary to implement GRECO's second recommendation - the publication of information on who the advisors of executive officials are. Currently, citizens can see who the special advisers are for only seven of the total 28 ministers of the current technical Government.

The planned amendments to the law on the Prevention of Corruption should expand the term "public official" to include chiefs of cabinets and advisers to the President and Vice President of the Government, as well as ministers. Although the adoption of that norm would formally satisfy the recommendation of GRECO, which analyzed the legislation related to the work of the executive power, for the sake of consistency, the same obligation should be established for advisers and chiefs of cabinet in other government bodies - e.g. the President of the National Assembly and the mayors. Having in mind previous experiences, Transparency Serbia believes that legal changes should also prevent the possibility of persons for whom it is not known who hired them and to whom they are accountable for their work advising the highest officials of the executive power in Serbia.

Amendments to the regulations were not necessary to fulfil GRECO's recommendation regarding the Anti-Corruption Council – that the Government appoint the missing members proposed by the Council and cooperate constructively with the Council. Instead, the Council continues to work with only six members, and numerous systemic problems pointed out in its reports remain unresolved because the Government consistently ignores the recommendations of its advisory body.

GRECO pointed out a significant obstacle to ensuring transparency and accountability of the top executive power – as in cases where the Government of Serbia or the President of the Republic withhold information of public importance so that citizens and journalists have no possibility to complain to the Commissioner. The only remaining possibility for obtaining legal protection is the management of an administrative dispute, but it is highly ineffective. As an illustration, there is the case in which Transparency Serbia, since February 2017, has been asking the Government of Serbia for a justification study and a concession act for the Belgrade airport. One of the administrative disputes that TS conducted on that occasion lasted from 2018 to 2022. However, the Government of Serbia did not act on the decision of the Administrative Court for more than a year, only to reject the request in January 2024 because it was allegedly unclear what information was being requested.

GRECO observed that the Government does not always respect the already existing obligations and that some of the laws come to the Parliament without conducting a public debate beforehand, nor was it presented in what way and with whose influence the proposed solutions were reached. Instead of improving practice and regulations, during the previous year, several important laws were adopted without public discussion, without adequate explanation and without seeking an opinion on corruption risks from the Agency for the Prevention of Corruption. Among them is a special law for EXPO 2027.

In order for the rules on lobbying that have existed in Serbia since 2018 to really have an effect, GRECO requested to record all attempts to influence the holders of executive power in connection with the adoption of regulations, regardless of whether they take place through formal channels or not. It also indicated that the data on these contacts, the names of the participants and the topics discussed should be public. Since the law has not been changed, the number of recorded cases of lobbying is still negligible, and suspicions of the hidden interests of those who benefit from it during the adoption and changes of the law remain strong.

GRECO believes that the Agency for the Prevention of Corruption should carry out "regular substantial control" of reports on the assets and income of the highest officials of the executive power. The Agency included all ministers in its regular annual control plan last time in 2014. The President of the Republic was not included in the period 2013-2023.

Serbia should rule out the possibility of members of the Government invoking immunity in case of suspicion of corruption. In order to implement this recommendation, it would be necessary to change the laws as well as the Constitution. The current proposal of the anti-corruption strategy not only does not contain a plan to initiate changes to the Constitution but also does not recognize that this is the only way to fulfil this recommendation. In addition, GRECO requested the removal of a significant deficiency in the corruption prosecution system. Namely, the Prosecutor's Office for Organized Crime is responsible for cases of corruption related to the work of ministers, assistant ministers, directors of public companies, judges and public prosecutors, but not in cases related to the President of the Republic and MPs.