COMMENT: Bosnia’s legal breakdown

COMMENT: Bosnia’s legal breakdown
Bosnian capital of Sarajevo.
By Alex Young in Belgrade April 8, 2016

There is a joke from the former Yugoslavia where a policeman returns home early to find his wife in bed looking flushed and nervous. Having searched through the wardrobes and behind the curtains, he eventually finds her lover under the bed. With his naked wife fearing the worst, the police officer, after being bribed by the very man screwing her, proclaims that she must have a fever and should get some rest. 

The joke works equally well for the region’s politicians, especially those from Bosnia & Herzegovina, where countless anti-corruption initiatives have come and gone without success. This made the indictment of Fahrudin Radoncic, the country’s former minister of security and leader of the SBB (Alliance for a Better Future for Bosnia), even more surprising, prompting a “who’s next?” debate within the media, political and business circles. If Bosnia and the region’s own recent experiences are anything to go by, however, the prospects of justice being served are slim.   

Radoncic, dubbed the “Bosnian Berlusconi” because of his entrepreneurial endeavours, is standing trial for allegedly interfering in the work of the judiciary by attempting to influence witnesses. The case is linked to the ongoing trial in Kosovo of Naser Kelmendi, a notorious organized crime figure, on charges of drug trafficking and murder. Predictably, Radoncic – who was accused of orchestrating the February 2014 protests in Bosnia – has claimed that the charges are politically motivated.

Prior experience bodes ill for a conviction. The current Croat member of the presidency, Dragan Covic (leader of the Croatian Democratic Union), has evaded prison on three separate occasions. A five-year sentence handed down to Covic for exempting a local company from paying meat import taxes was overturned on appeal, whilst he was acquitted of purchasing private homes with public money. Covic was also acquitted of abuse of office charges pertaining to the transfer of ownership of Eronet, a mobile phone operator, to private companies.

Back in 2012, international judges and prosecutors were removed from Bosnia’s State Court and Prosecutor’s Office (especially its Organized Crime Department) at the behest of Bosnia’s politicians. The move was considered a setback for the development of the rule of law, although some pointed out that many of the high-profile cases pursued by international prosecutors ended in acquittals.

Bosnia is now awash with speculation about who the Prosecutor’s Office might target next. A whirlwind of speculation suggested that the offices of the president of Republika Srpska (one of Bosnia’s two entities), Milorad Dodik, would be raided. Suspicions concern Dodik’s 2007 purchase of a Belgrade villa, plus his role in the recent collapse of Bobar Bank. A previous corruption and abuse of office investigation against him was dropped back in 2011 due to a lack of evidence. Dodik too has accused the Prosecutor’s Office of being politically motivated.  

Ever-increasing circles

From a politician’s point of view, one problem with bribery is that it involves rising payments to an ever expanding pool of actors. A better strategy is to work to undermine or eliminate entirely the institutions that may have the audacity to pursue you. Dodik has long-threatened to hold a referendum challenging the legitimacy of the Court and Prosecutor's Office of Bosnia & Herzegovina. Last December, the Republika Srpska government suspended cooperation with the State Investigation and Protection Agency (SIPA), along with the Bosnia & Herzegovina Court and Prosecutor’s Office, after alleging that SIPA had acted unconstitutionally during a war crimes investigation on the entity’s territory. 

High-profile corruption cases have long been interpreted as signs that countries are committed to stamping it out, often as part of EU accession bids. Yet two of Croatia’s most notable cases have since been fundamentally undermined, despite the fanfare they initially attracted. Croatia’s Supreme Court last year abolished the nine-year prison sentence handed down to Ivo Sanader, the country’s former prime minister, for his role in the Fimi Media case. Sanader was freed from prison at the end of 2015. Meanwhile, one indictment against Zagreb's mayor, Milan Bandic, was thrown out last summer due to a supposed lack of evidence, whilst Zagreb’s County Court recently ruled that the prosecution’s key evidence (taped phone conversations) in the so-called Agram case were inadmissible, as they were illegal and violated Bandic’s human rights. 

In Serbia, the arrest of leading businessman Miroslav Miskovic on corruption and abuse of position charges was also interpreted as proof of a firm anti-corruption stance, with Serbia’s prime minister, Aleksandar Vucic, describing Miskovic as an “enemy of the state”. Three years on, however, the trial has hit troubled waters. Judge Vladimir Vucinic from the Higher Court’s special chambers (dealing with organized crime, corruption and war crimes) was removed, allegedly because of his December 2013 decision to return Miskovic’s passport, contrary to the government’s wishes. Though Miskovic’s son Marko has just been sentenced to three and a half years in prison for tax evasion, the future of his own trial remains unclear.

The EU’s reform agenda in Bosnia & Herzegovina will mean little in the absence of a sustained fight against corruption and organized crime. Like everything in the country, however, ethnic equality will be expected – “you arrest one of our guys, we expect the arrest of one of yours.”

Tensions deriving from investigations are likely to encourage further attempts to undermine prosecutorial and judicial institutions, further compromising efforts to tackle corruption. As the region’s examples amply demonstrate, high-profile prosecutions often fall short in delivering justice. Bosnia is likely to be in the same bed.