When a country fakes a battle against corruption, that virus tends to mutate very quickly and has a high death rate.
Last year’s Krusik Scandal was a regional one. The honest whistleblower revealed a massive-scale corruption network, from the late Branko Stefanovic, father of then-Minister of Internal Affairs, to those at the very top of the coopted state. The beneficiary sellers were interlinked with the ruling party, and received ammunition from the factory below any market price, to the point of bringing ruin to the factory itself; the government approved all this, fully aware of the illogicality of the deal, and some of the weapons ended up in the hands of terrorist organisations. In this whole affair, the only person arrested was the whistleblower, the brave citizen Aleksandar Obradovic. There was no other investigation, and the one against him has been going on for a year, without any news from the seemingly secretive state prosecution.
This whole event can be described as blatant abuse of the legal and police systems for the purpose of covering up crime. Those who understand the gravity of the situation in Serbia, and those who even care, have shown what they think of the situation by protesting. We could have foreseen that things will end very badly for human and citizen liberties and rights, as well as law itself.
The journalistic measures for corruption
Four and a half years prior, the team from the Centre for Investigative Journalism of Serbia (CINS) decided to investigate how our country is battling with corruption. In the end, we’ve realised that the only way is to gather quantifiable data – to identify crimes related to corruption, and question every police unit, prosecution office and court in Serbia who manage these processes. We received the information we needed from 52 local and higher Prosecutor Offices (out of 83), Prosecutor’s Office for Organised Crime, as well as 79 (out of 91) local and higher courts. This took eight months and required work from all members of the investigative team.
The results were more depressing than any of us thought. During the three year period we looked at, there have been 6,179 reported crimes and just under three thousand people were prosecuted. 1,861 sentences were charged to around 1,500 persons. Out of these, 1,268 were out on probation. Three thousand cases were, in the end, 300 minimal prison sentences, or even well below the minimum. In other ways, you have to be incredibly talented and put tremendous effort into the endeavour if you want to be charged for corruption in Serbia.
Equally, instead of a constructive governmental response to this data, for example suggesting some sort of reform, we were faced with the opposite. One by one, all anti-corruption institutions became purposeless, coopted, and silenced under the government of Aleksandar Vucic, the media was placed under tight control and corruption was allowed peace and space to operate. The erosion of the rule of law became the repetitive refrain of every European Commission report about Serbian progress, euphemistically phrased as ‘lack of progress’.
When a country fakes a battle against corruption, this virus tends to mutate very quickly and has a high death rate. After years of unbridled breaches of all anti-corruption laws, including criminal law, the patient sees that the doctors are fighting against the cure by arresting the whistleblower, and they are patting the virus on the back, asking what they can do to help.
CINS received a European Journalism Award for its efforts, which is probably one of the most valued journalistic recognitions in Europe. And that is great. I didn’t ask our journalists, but I believe we would all rather return the award in exchange for an opportunity to live in a dignified society, under the rule of law. The terrible corruption virus has misshapen Serbian society beyond recognition.
Then the real virus came. The symbolic corruption virus created an environment in which we greeted the pandemic weak, corrupt, poor, incapable, without enough medical staff, and with unequipped hospitals. We have the highest infection rate in Europe, and one of the highest mortality rates in relation to the number of positive cases of Covid-19.
Now we are measuring the consequences of corruption by the number of lives lost.
Branko Čečen, Executive Director of the Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia. Long time journalist and editor in Belgrade print media; lecturer at the Media and Communications Faculty in Belgrade.