Corruption is endemic to most of Europe, Scandinavia being the great exception. In Serbia corruption is not only damaging the economy, but hindering the development of democracy.
Vladimir Radomirović is editor-in-chief of Pištaljka (The Whistle), a whistleblowing platform, and president of the Journalists’ Association of Serbia (UNS).
A mayor suspected of money laundering, an opposition leader who refuses to explain how he acquired an apartment velued at a million Euros, and a mayor of a poor town who boasts a Lamborghini. All images of Serbia, a country largely run by a political class that amasses private fortunes while in public office. A class that has no other profession than politics.
Siniša Mali became mayor of Belgrade four years ago, having previously served as an advisor to Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić (Vučić has since become president of Serbia). Coming from a family with close ties to the former Yugoslavian Communist Party (his grandfather was an Army general), Mali first entered politics at the age of 28 following regime change in the country in the year 2000. Later, as Assistant Minister for Privatization, he was in charge of the dubious sales of several major state-owned companies.
In 2004 Mali started a business consultancy using connections acquired during his time as head of the privatization agency. The business was a success. Records show that Mali and his family currently own 29 pieces of real estate.
In 2009 Mali transferred more than 500,000 euros from his account in the British Virgin Islands to Serbia via Switzerland. The reason we know this: his Serbian bank thought it amounted to money laundering and reported Mali to the authorities. Meanwhile, Mali returned to high-level politics and the investigation stalled. Eight years on the investigation is still not completed; neither the Tax Administration nor prosecutors seem interested in finding out just how the mayor became so wealthy or how much he owes his country in taxes.
Interestingly, during a child custody battle last year Mali claimed “friends” from abroad were paying 60,000 euros annually for the schooling of his three children. Again, there was no interest from either the judge in charge of the case or from public prosecutors to investigate this claim.
Dragan Šutanovac is president of the opposition Democratic Party (DS). From 2007 to 2012 he was Serbia’s Minister of Defence. Towards the end of his term in office, he invested in an upmarket building in the center of Belgrade. The land was bought for 1,500,000 euros and at least another 1,500,000 was invested in the construction of the five-story building. One of the other investors was football star Nemanja Vidić, who at the time captained Manchester United, earning 90,000 Pounds per week. The Defence Minister’s salary was a paltry 1,000 euros per month.
When Šutanovac’s spending spree came to light thanks to an investigation published by the Serbian whistle blower website Pištaljka (The Whistle), the minister claimed he and his wife, a banker, took out a loan to finance the project. Later he changed this version declaring he borrowed the money from his father-in-law, a folk music star. Needless to say, there was no evidence for any of these claims. Public prosecutors never bothered to investigate the case fully. Šutanovac is still refusing to document the source of his financing for the building project.
Since 2004 Goran Ljubić has been mayor of Doljevac, a small town in southern Serbia. The average net monthly salary there is 300 euros. Yet, Ljubić bought a 100,000-euro Lamborghini and seven other cars; just part of his huge accumulation of wealth. He even duly reported all this in his asset declaration, but the Anti-Corruption Agency failed to act upon it. Eventually, Ljubić was charged with syphoning off municipal funds to a company he owns.
To ward off possible jail time, the mayor switched sides – he joined the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), the country’s ruling party. This is Ljubić’s third party in the past 15 years and he is not the only one; far from it. The practice even has a name in Serbian: preletanje (literally flying over, switching parties to gain money or influence). Belgrade mayor Siniša Mali started his political career in the liberal Democratic Party, left politics for business, only to return in 2012 as a member of the right-wing SNS party. Party ideologies don’t matter here, it’s all about the money and avoiding prosecution.
Justice for the political class is an extremely rare event in Serbia. One of the two only high-ranking politician to ever stand trial was the former Defence Minister Šutanovac, and this only because he was tried for a minor crime: not declaring his construction business in his asset report. When the former Anti-Corruption Agency director, Zorana Marković, appeared in the witness stand to give testimony, she summed up pretty nicely the real purpose of Serbian law enforcement: “Our task was to shield officials from media reports,” she said. Šutanovac was acquitted – of course.
The Anti-Corruption Agency director that succeeded Ms Marković collected evidence against Belgrade mayor Mali, but failed to act upon the damning evidence, allowing Mali to remain office. It is no wonder then, that she was awarded a seat on the Constitutional Court, the nation’s highest court. When asked if the seat was a reward for her keeping not prosecuting the mayor, she only replied: “That’s a legitimate question.”