The arrest on December 26 of 80 people, including a former minister, may be a sign that Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic finally intends to get serious about fighting corruption and financial crime this year.
The arrests, which were made in connection to 20 separate cases, were combined for dramatic effect just before the start of a year when Serbia aims to open EU negotiation chapters on corruption, and Vucic – who came to power on a strong anti-corruption mandate – will face regional elections.
Interior minister Nebojsa Stefanovic told journalists in Belgrade on December 26 that the arrests followed years of investigation into cases that cost the state over €100mn, according to a ministry statement. Stefanovic added that the operation would continue and "nobody would be spared", B92 reported.
Although most of the cases involve shady land deals, there is no other obvious connection between them. Most of those arrested were connected to either the opposition Democratic Party (DP) or the Serbian Socialist Party (SPS) - the junior coalition party of Vucic’s ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS).
The most high-profile arrest was of Milosavljevic, a former agriculture minister and DP member, who was detained in a fraud probe concerning a land swap in the town of Novi Sad, alongside seven others.
Other arrests include a former director of the insurance company Dunav Osiguranje, Milanka Jezdimirovic, who is close to the SPS, and Zorana Markovic, director of Serbia’s Anti-Corruption Agency from 2010 to 2011.
Vucic has been vocal on the subject of fighting corruption since the SNS first came to power in 2012 as part of a coalition led by the SPS. After the 2014 election, when the SNS became the dominant party in the new parliament, Vucic made the fight against corruption a central part of his government’s programme, telling the parliament that the creation of “strong and well-organised state bodies” was the only way to stamp out corruption and organised crime. Recent steps taken include the adoption of a law on whistleblowers and the introduction of new rules for evaluating judges and prosecutors.
However, despite Vucic’s rhetoric, Serbia fell from 72nd place on Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index to 78th on the 2014 index.
“The government is aware of how big the problem is, but there is no real commitment to fighting corruption. Changes to the legal framework and institutions are needed, and existing plans to fight corruption need to be implemented fully and transparently,” says Ana Babovic, teaching fellow at Harvard Kennedy School.
“There was huge media hype around the arrests, but arrests alone are not enough. There have been far fewer convictions than arrests, and after someone has been convicted and sentenced, there is no way to check whether they actually serve their jail sentence.”
The arrests took place just two weeks after Serbia opened its first EU negotiating chapters on December 14. Belgrade is soon hoping to open Chapter 23 on the judiciary and fundamental rights. and Chapter 24 on justice, freedom and security.
The EU’s latest enlargement progress report on Serbia, published in November 2015, says that corruption remains widespread. “The anti-corruption effort has yet to yield significant results,” says the report, which calls for Belgrade to establish a credible track record “of effective investigations, prosecutions and convictions in corruption cases ... including at high level.”
“The European Commission certainly points to the need to have a track record against corruption but that refers to final sentences not arrests,” Nemanja Nenadic, programme director at Transparency Serbia, told bne IntelliNews. “I don’t think these arrests will be a sufficient signal.”
Moreover, Serbia will hold local elections as well as regional elections in the autonomous provide of Vojvodina in the first half of this year, in which the SNS will campaign on a separate platform from the SPS, its parter in the national government, Vucic announced on January 5.
The prime minister has also not ruled out holding early general elections in 2016, which could allow the SNS to increase its majority, making it easier to push through potentially unpopular reforms. The fact that most of the detainees are linked to its rivals allows the SNS to emphasise its clean credentials.
Nenadic believes that Vucic and the SNS first entered the government, some types of corruption are less widespread, and anti-corruption campaigns have had an influence on many people.
However, he points out that there are still reasons for concern, as the government is making huge deals with investors “in non-transparent ways and without any competition”. While he notes that this is not evidence of corruption it itself, he warns it is “a risky pattern of behaviour.”
“Instead of a situation where party leaders from the coalition government shared the spoils, there is a new system with absolute power in the hands of one party - one man even,” he adds.
Transparency Serbia has previously raised questions about Belgrade Waterfront, the largest real estate development to be launched in Serbia. The €3.2bn project was launched by the government and the United Arab Emirates’ Eagle Hills in 2015, and involves the reconstruction of a large area near Belgrade fortress on the banks of the Danube.
Serbia is not the only country to seek to impress Brussels with its committment to fighting corruption and organised crime – identified as a problem in successive enlargement progress reports across the Southeast Europe region. Often, the legislation is in place, but countries fall short in implementing it.
In Albania, police launched a large-scale raid on the country’s “marijuana mountain” at Lazarat in June 2014, just days before a critical meeting of EU foreign ministers. After turning Albania down several times in the past - mainly on corruption and organised crime concerns - ministers decided to give Albania candidate status at the summit.
Meanwhile, three days after the Serbian arrests, Bosnia's state prosecutor charged 16 people, including several top former regional officials, over connections to organised crime, money laundering and tax evasion. Sarajevo plans to apply for EU membership later this month.