Serbian police arrested 80 officials and businesspeople, including a former minister and two deputy ministers, on suspicion of corruption and financial crimes on December 26, Serbia’s interior ministry said in a statement.
The ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and its leader, prime minister Aleksandar Vucic, made the fight against corruption one of their main principles on coming to power. However, while this was welcomed by the majority of Serbian citizens, it appeared to have been put on a back burner until the December 26 arrests. These come shortly after Serbia opened its first EU negotiating chapters, and a few months in advance of regular regional elections in the northern autonomous province of Vojvodina, where the opposition Democratic Party (DS) is in power.
Speaking to reporters on December 27 in Belgrade, interior minister Nebojsa Stefanovic said that those arrested are suspects in some 20 financial crime and corruption cases which cost the state over €100mn.
Stefanovic told a press conference in Belgrade that investigations had been ongoing from 2004 to the present and that the operation would continue and "nobody would be spared".
The biggest part of the job was done over the past year, Stefanovic said, adding that most of the suspected frauds were in connection with construction land, B92 reported.
Those arrested include many officials from both the DS and the SNS’s junior coalition partner the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), as well as directors of public companies controlled by the two parties.
The most high-profile arrest was of DS member and former minster Slobodan Milosavljevic. Milosavljevic was agriculture, forestry and water management minister from 2007-2008 and trade minister from 2008-2011, as well as being the former president of the Serbian Chamber of Commerce.
He and seven others were arrested in a fraud probe. The Higher Court in Belgrade ordered Milosavljevic to be held in police custody for 30 days.
Police suspect that from December 2004 to June 2008, the group illegally exchanged agricultural land owned by Maxim&Co marketing company for state-owned land in a construction zone in Novi Sad used by the city’s agricultural cooperative, B92 reported, citing the prosecutor's office.
By doing so, Maxim&Co allegedly made profits of over RSD1bn, since the state-owned land was worth many times more than the agricultural land that the state received in exchange, the release said.
Other arrests include a former director of the insurance company Dunav Osiguranje, Milanka Jezdimirovic, who is close to the SPS. Jezdimirovic used to be a symbol of a strong female communist leader.
Zorana Markovic, director of the Anti-Corruption Agency from 2010 to 2011, is also among those arrested.
Serbia opened its first EU negotiation chapters on December 14, giving rise to speculation within the country that the arrests were intended to demonstrate Belgrade’s commitment to fighting corruption to Brussels.
Vucic has been a vocal proponent of combatting corruption since the SNS first came to power within a government led by the SPS’s Ivica Dacic. A year later, after the March 2014 general election, the SNS won a solid majority and Vucic became prime minister, but the party has continued to work with the SPS.
However, relations between the two parties are sometimes tense, and the timing of the arrests could reinforce the reputation of the SNS as an opponent of corruption in contrast to both the DS and the SPS in advance of the Vojvodina elections.