Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Tuzla Officials Face Corruption Inquiry

Corruption allegations continue to haunt high-ranking SDP officials
By Nermina Durmic-Kahrovic

" Tuzla was always different," said Azra Begic, a 45-year-old school teacher. " We always elected social democrats. And, I guess, this is why we now feel so bad when we read that perhaps they are no different from the nationalists."


Persistent media allegations of corruption within the ranks of Tuzla's moderate leadership have left many locals feeling wretched.


Tuzla, the only town in Bosnia to have voted in a progressive leadership in 1991, thought it had escaped the widespread corruption and nepotism synonymous with their nationalist counterparts over the past few years.


Opposition parties exploited the nationalists' corrupt practices in the run-up to the last November's elections, in which they posted their best results in a decade.


Now, media reports are claiming that key officials in the moderate Social Democratic Party, SDP, in Tuzla and the neighbouring town of Brcko are guilty of the same.


The SDP leadership, as partners in the state's ruling Alliance for Change coalition, are nervous that the allegations will tarnish their image. Many in the party say their opponents produced the charges to compromise them ahead of the November ballot.


The crisis broke out in August last year when Mirnes Ajanovic, president of the Bosnian Party, BOSS, accused the governor of Tuzla canton Selim Beslagic of corruption while serving as mayor.


Ajanovic told the Federation parliament that federal financial police had conducted an investigation into Belagic's affairs earlier in 2000. There were concerns, he said, over claims the former mayor had awarded construction companies contracts without putting them out to tender. Beslagic denies all of the allegations.


"I am ready to bear financial, moral and criminal responsibility, if there is any evidence which points to it," Beslagic told IWPR when asked about the charges.


He added that he had personally requested that the relevant authorities carry out a thorough investigation. "What else can I do?" he said.


A recent inquiry by Tuzla's cantonal prosecutor Izo Tankic concluded that the charges against Beslagic were unfounded. Ajanovic, however, has done his best to keep the issue in the public eye with a media campaign designed to pressure Tankic to reopen the case.


Two of Beslagic's colleagues, Ekrem Sehovic and Hasan Becirevic, have also been implicated in the affair. The former is currently on trial. The latter was freed at the beginning of March.


Becirevic, who had been a prime contender for heading the Tuzla cantonal government, believes the allegations were fabricated to undermine him and the SDP ahead of the November elections.


SDP deputies in Brcko also believe that they continue to be the targets of scandal-mongering. A report in independent weekly Slobodna Bosna claimed several high ranking members of the SDP and Party for Bosnia-Herzegovina in the town had misused 13 million DM of government funds between 1998 and 1999.


Both the original and follow-up reports quoted a Brcko district police report, part of which IWPR has seen. It states investigators discovered a number of dubious "official expenses" entries and cites abuses of power and the wrongful use of government money for such items as clothes, mobile phones, jewellery and even prostitutes.


Whether the Tuzla and Brcko allegations are true or merely nationalist intrigues remains unclear. Part of the problem is that since the Slobodna story broke, the municipal authorities have been reluctant to investigate the cases.


The standstill has triggered anxious public debate. SDP supporters are now openly questioning their support for the politicians they hoped would breathe fresh life into a leadership notorious for its abuse of political power.


SDP deputy president Refik Ahmedinovic admitted the long shadow of suspicion could only harm the state administration.


"This could all be an orchestrated campaign against the new government to try prove that it's corrupt too, " he said. " That's why it's important the authorities clear the matter up once and for all so that we can get on with our job. "


Ahmedinovic is keen to avoid a repeat of the scandals which rocked the Federation in 1997 following reports of widespread embezzlement of international aid.


Back then, he chaired the investigation into the accusations. Now he stresses that the Alliance for Change is determined to eliminate corruption - first within the ranks of the coalition, and then elsewhere in the country.


But both the new coalition government and the SDP appear to be wary of wrestling with the sort of charges being brought in Tuzla and Brcko. Perhaps they are afraid of what they might find; that this might lose them public support, just as they attempt to consolidate their electoral victory.


Nermina Durmic-Kahrovic is a regular IWPR contributor