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Serbia: Corruption Clampdown

Serbian authorities launche "name and shame" anti-corruption campaign.
By Sinisa Stanimirovic

A judge stands charged of taking cash for a favourable ruling; a handful of cops are investigated for selling driving licences; some petrol smugglers face fines for paying-off a police officer.


The crimes may be commonplace in Serbia but the way the suspects were caught is not. Serbs, tired of shelling out bribes to officials on the take, are being given the chance to shop bent state employees in a new government initiative.


The scheme, which encourages the public to phone a number of graft hotlines, prompted 250 calls and nine arrests since it was set up in mid-January.


These first tentative steps in dealing with rampant bribery, which had until recently established Serbia as the world's most corrupt country, indicate that Belgrade may actually be serious about stamping out corruption.


However, the participation of the thoroughly compromised Serbian secret police in the scheme and the absence of any high profile suspects suggests to some independent observers that the initiative is pure window-dressing and that only the smaller fry will be caught.


But the high-profile campaign has, according to Serbian finance minister Bozidar Djelic, already prompted the non-governmental organisation Transparency International to rank Serbia in third place in the fight against corruption.


Fraud in Serbia is so endemic that even a doctor's appointment or hospital treatment usually involves bribery. X-rays, surgery and even medical assistance during childbirth can carry "fees" of several hundred German marks.


The police, teachers, customs officers and the judiciary are also mired in corruption and almost any business activity or public service requires personal connections and bribes.


Faced with the daunting task of turning the situation around, the Belgrade authorities have set up a council made up of senior police officers, prosecutors and independent experts to run the anti-graft initiative. So far, it has set up specialised teams of investigators in 26 towns across Serbia.


"We must encourage people to call us," said Serbian state prosecutor Sinisa Simic. But he made clear, however, that callers need to provide evidence to back up their accusations, "We will not respond to anonymous calls."


Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic said the government and the new anti-corruption council would take all possible steps to ensure the clampdown is a success.


"Our aim is to bring together state security services, public prosecutors and the public security department," said Djindjic. " Once the first person is behind bars, people will start to trust us."


Some, however, are alarmed by the prime minister's proposed tactics and especially by the government's involvement of the Serbian secret police, who, after all, have a rather unsavoury reputation. Ivan Marovic, a leader of the political watchdog organisation Otpor, said Djindjic had been evasive when asked about their use.


Otpor, well-known for its activities under the Milosevic regime, continues to target corruption and abuses of power at all levels. Between Milosevic's overthrow in October 2000 and the beginning of this year, the group has collected 150 reports of fraud. More than two-thirds of these are currently being investigated.


But corruption cases highlighted so far have involved ordinary people. No senior state official or politician has come under scrutiny and most people believe that this is where the really serious problem lies.


Responding to such criticism, the anti-corruption council has asked the government to provide a list of state officials who are members of the executive boards of Serbian companies, in order to monitor their activities. It was among the ranks of such executives that the most serious cases of white-collar crime were committed during the Milosevic-era.


Belgrade district prosecutor Rade Terzic believes the biggest stumbling block to the whole campaign is the attitude of the average citizen who has grown used to getting things done by bribing the relevant individual or authority.


Nevertheless, the majority appear to be cautiously supportive of the government's campaign. Miodrag, a civil servant from Belgrade summed it up, "It's high time that something was done because I am sick of having to bribe someone every time I want to get something done."


Sinisa Stanimirovic is an editor with the Belgrade daily Nacional.


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