Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
For the first time in Serbia a government minister has been forced out of office following charges of sexual harassment, an activity which often arouses admiration rather than censure in male-dominated Serbian society.
Closer examination suggests, however, that deputy prime minister Vuk Obradovic, for all his reputation as a sex pest, may really have been ousted because his anti-corruption campaign might have been digging uncomfortably deep.
A former Yugoslav general, Obradovic is head of the Social Democrats, SD, one of 17 parties in the DOS coalition which has run Serbia since the downfall last year of Slobodan Milosevic.
The DOS leadership voted unanimously on May 11 to kick Obradovic out of his job. Seven days before, Obradovic had been accused by 15 SD officials of "sexual abuse and harassment" of government officials, party colleagues and journalists.
Obradovic's keen eye for women was well-known. Female journalists were reluctant to visit him in his Belgrade office. But sexual harassment is not recognised an offence in Serbian law, nor does it usually draw much in the way of public condemnation.
Obradovic's dismissal came at a time when he was at the height of his political power. He was head of the government's anti-corruption team set up to investigate the leaders of companies which profited unduly under Milosevic.
The sexual harassment charge was raised by Ljiljana Nestorovic, an SD spokeswoman, during a party leadership meeting at the beginning of the month.
She said Obradovic had several times tried to hold her hand during meetings, despite her protests. She also rejected his request "for our lips to meet". Formerly a famous TV presenter in Belgrade, Nestorovic complained, "I have suffered aggressive, lascivious advances in which he sought to obtain sexual intimacy."
She added that Obradovic also made advances to female colleagues in government, SD party workers and numerous female journalists.
Faced with these accusations, backed up by tape recordings, Obradovic promised party members at the meeting that he would resign as SD president, according to sources close to the party leadership.
But it turned out that Obradovic had merely been seeking to gain time. He invited his provincial supporters to Belgrade where they denounced Nestorovic, as "a nymphomaniac and a slut". The party then split but it appeared that Obradovic retained charge of the larger faction.
Although they failed to oust him from the leadership of the party, his opponents in the SD won the backing of the majority of parties in the DOS. Thus, at the initiative of Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic, Obradovic was sacked "to protect the reputation of the government".
Obradovic asserts that certain DOS leaders grew worried after he took over the anti-corruption team in January. He accused Djindjic and police minister Dusan Mihajlovic, a member of the anti-corruption team, of conspiring to provoke the accusations against him.
Observers have suggested that some of those who grew rich during the Milosevic regime are now supporting Djindjic, and that he is now trying to protect them. Both the Serbian premier and his police minister have so far refused to comment on the saga.
The Serbian Sexgate scandal became public just weeks before a wealth tax for the newly rich, which Obradovic had proposed, was due to be passed.
Obradovic had promised to publish the names of 7,000 companies eligible for the tax, which he once boasted would raise some 5 billion German Marks in revenue.
But in his final report - leaked to the Banja Luka-based news magazine Reporter days after his dismissal - just two firms, Simpo, from Vranje, and Vujic, from Valjevo, are subject to the levy. Their taxation would raise a derisory 9 million marks.
In an addition to Simpo and Vujic, the leaked report mentioned 19 other firms and individuals suspected of irregularities during the Milosevic-era.
One of the biggest, Mobtel, a mobile phone company owned by the Karic family - a pillar of Milosevic's regime for almost a decade - is only lightly criticised.
Zoran Pavlovic, the executive director of Braca Karic - the family's principal commercial concern - said they would be prepared to cooperate with the anti-corruption team when they get an official request.
The leaked document also lists Milan Panic, a Serbian-American businessman and former prime minister of Serbia. He backed Milosevic in the early Nineties. The two later fell out and he is now close to Djindjic and the minister of justice Vladan Batic.
Obradovic's team disputed the legality of the privatisation of ICN Galenika - the biggest pharmaceutical factory in the Balkans - which Panic bought with Milosevic's help in the early 1990s. Investigators believe the Serbian government is the rightful owner of the company.
ICN public relations spokesman, Dragan Karajovic said, "I can only briefly tell you what Mr Panic said about the whole case: ICN thinks only about the future, and Mr Vuk Obradovic belongs to the past."
The fact that Karic will not be required to pay any tax is significant,
as it appears to suggest that Obradovic also wants to protect people.
Karic provided financial support for his party.
Djindjic, however, is thought to have been keen to undermine the Karic empire. The Belgrade city assembly, where Djindjic's Democratic Party, DS, controls the executive council, withdrew funds that had been deposited for years in Karic's Astra bank.
At the same time, Boris Tadic, the federal telecommunications minister and a DS official, is trying to block Karic's mobile phone monopoly. At present, Mobtel dominates the sector. Tadic wants another company in the market to increase competition.
In a further twist in the case, the Obradovic report criticised police minister Mihajlovic for not working hard enough to identify those who'd enriched themselves over the last decade.
Mihajlovic is the founder of the trading company Lutra which did extremely well during the Milosevic era. His role in the anti-corruption team was to investigate the cigarette, petroleum and alcohol trade - Lutra's line of business in the Nineties was trading petrol. Lutra refused to comment.
Since his dismissal, Obradovic has claimed that certain members of his team obstructed its work. This, he said, accounted for the brevity of the final report.
In an apparent attempt to set the record straight, he has published a list of over 100 companies which, he claims, profited unduly during the Milosevic era. Obradovic claims that some members of his team had details of these firms but never bothered to investigate them. "Some of these cases have not even been opened, " he said.
The crisis over the anti-corruption campaign is much greater than Obradovic's political fall. It suggests that Serbian politicians are deeply divided over how to deal with the legacy of Milosevic's rule.
There was no guarantee that Obradovic would root out corruption. And what's certain is that whoever succeeds him will have to start all over again, leaving time for ministers to sweep unwelcome facts under the carpet.
Zeljko Cvijanovic is an independent journalist based in Serbia..........
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