Reforms in Serbia have been reduced to cosmetic changes

Reforms in Serbia have been reduced to cosmetic changes


By Miloš Mitrović – Belgrade

‘’The agreement between Belgrade and Pristina can be viewed as a relief and a disburdening for the both sides. When the symbolic and formally-legal values are taken into consideration, both sides have lost, although Serbian side lost more in comparison to the Kosovo’s one’’,  Veran Stančetić, professor and a vice dean at the Faculty of European Legal and Political Studies based in Novi Sad, Serbia, said in the interview for IBNA.

What will the upcoming EU summit bring to Serbia, the date for the start of accession negotiations or the ‘’green light’’ for the talks – is the core political debate in Belgrade. Do you believe that the results of the summit scheduled for the Jun 28th would be of a substantial importance regarding the implementations of the reforms in Serbia?

The June summit is not of the essential importance for the real reforms in Serbia. However, Serbian politicians are trying to represent the reality in the way that suits them best. The summit achievements regarding Serbia could be the result of the assumed persistent and intensive reforms in Serbia. On the other hand, EU leaders could react appropriately to the failure of the reforms. Serbian political elite is trying to avoid its responsibility in the case that the date would not be granted on June 28th. Their complaints regarding the possible EU decision to signal the „green light’’ instead to grant the date for the start of the negotiations are directed to the Serbian voters. The message to the voters is: ’’We did everything that they (EU) demanded from us, but they don’t want to grant the date. The EU is unfair and it keeps inventing new conditions for the start of the negotiations“. This is just a fresh example of the long lasting pseudo-politics in this region which is based both on simulations and political marketing. The objective of the actors of this politics is to stay in power. By this discourse, the citizens are being homogenized and identified with the government (us); the EU (they) is perceived as not too friendly orientated towards Serbia. Intentionally or not, this kind of politics is jeopardizing the fragile pro-European position of Serbian citizens. However, if the date for the start of the negotiations will be granted, this would certainly be good news. Such a decision would open the window of opportunity for Serbia. Granting the date should be seized by intensive reform agenda.

How do you rate the pro-European reforms conducted in Serbia until now, especially the reforms of public administration and governance? 

If we take into consideration both the good governance principles (so-called 3E principles of being economical, effective and efficient) and the key reform processes (3D – decentralization, deregulation and departisation), it is obvious that there is an abyss between the public administration in Serbia and the European standard of good governance.  Up to now, the reforms in Serbia had been reduced to cosmetic changes or to austerity-related layoffs in the ministries. Indeed, these actions had been simulations of the real administrative reforms; the employees on low wages had been fired. Nevertheless, the numerous public enterprises and their CEO`s, as well as the members of the countless administrative committees are earning and spending huge amounts of money.  The spending of the public sector is unsustainably high when compared to the total state budget. All these issues had not even been discussed. Another neuralgic topic is the irrational use of the state assets. According to some assessments, the value of the state assets that lies idle is approximately EUR 180 billion. The state possesses 19.000 official buildings, as well as the 4.700 business real estate and hundreds of thousands of hectares of forests, agricultural and construction land. At the same time, the government is renting buildings; the employees of the State Audit Institution are divided into four buildings and the Commissioner for the Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection cannot do his job appropriately because the state has no money to pay the wages to the assistants he needs.

How successful Serbia is in the process of decentralization, which is one of the key points on its reform agenda?

It moves rather slowly. Until recently the relation of local governments to their own property has been conducted by a law enacted in 1995. This law forbade local governments to handle its own property freely (in other words, its property had been appropriated). Ten years after the implementation of this law (in 2005), a series of surveys and estimations of its efficiency took place.  The results showed that EUR 1.3 billion and a few thousands of jobs had been lost. In addition, until recently (more precisely, until the last year) Serbia has been among “the last Mohicans” in the world who had so called imperative, that is, tied mandates of MP’s.  Being given only a municipal authority and a small local budget, local self-governance had been removed as an autonomous factor from the public life and turned into some kind of the offset of the major party or the central government. Luckily, in the last two year, the situation has improved.

Nevertheless, Serbia is still a centralized state. This is rather evident from the analyses of the public finances and expenditures. The original income of the municipalities represents 20% of the whole local budget, while only 10% of the state budget is being transferred to the cities and municipalities.

The question of the implementation of some intermediary level of the governance has been put aside and the realization of this is not very likely to happen in the recent future. The issue of decentralization has been reduced to the politicians’ announcements since the politicians perceive decentralization as threat to their own position of power and rule. This is not some specific Serbian issue, but it is actually common to a lot of other states so the process of decentralization is often being realized only with the help of some kind of pressure, usually the one coming from the EU.

Furthermore, the organizations of the civil society, which represent the key partner to the local self-governances in the relation to the development policy of the community, are not being given the appropriate attention.  Staying blind for the importance of the NGO sector and their relations with the local self-governance results in the deficiency of the realization of the projects in which they both would take part. The fact that the money from IPA fund has only partially been spent also supports this thesis.

In May, the Government of the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina adopted the Declaration on the protection of the constitutional and legal rights of Vojvodina.  The ruling parties in the central government reacted by organizing the rally ‘’against the separatism’’. What was the motivation of the provincial government, ant that of the organisers of the rally?     

If the reaction on the Declaration of the constitutional rights is perceived as a rally “against separatism”, then there indeed is something “rotten” in both political and public discourse.  Nevertheless, neither the motive of the adoption of the Declaration figured as a real motive for the deference of the Constitution, nor the fear of separatism figured as a real motive for the rally. What actually took place was a political, that is, partisan competition. To remind, the core of the provincial government is constituted by the Democratic Party and the core of the central government by the Progressive Party.  It is unquestionable that the relation between the central and the provincial government is characterized by a variety of problems, and that a lot of adopted procedures are not being followed, so the Declaration of the AP Vojvodina has sense. However, putting this issue in motion precisely in the moment when Kosovo was the main topic (the Brussels agreement), shows that its creator wanted to call the attention to something else and provoke as explosive discourse as possible, what the other side used (probably even without reading the Declaration) as a perfect chance for discrediting all of the power and rule that the Democratic Party still kept after its electoral defeat last year.

However, the biggest problem is that this used to confuse, mislead and scare the majority of citizens on the one side, and on the other, it empowers extremist groups and attitudes (from the claims for the independence of Vojvodina  to the total abolition of its autonomy).  Even though there are not many groups like these, they are loud and the events like this one with the Declaration and the rally which followed it, results in giving them more attention than they actually deserve.


What is your opinion regarding the Brussels agreement between Belgrade and Pristina?

The agreement between Belgrade and Pristina can be viewed as a relief and a disburdening for the both sides. When the symbolic and formally-legal values are taken into consideration, both sides have lost although Serbian side lost more in comparison to the Kosovo’s one.  When I say symbolic values, I mean flags, emblems, stamps, formal sovereignty etc.  However, when the real life and public policies are taken into consideration, this agreement enables and ameliorates the life of people on the territory of Kosovo.  No matter how many great powers support the independence of Kosovo, the real life of the citizens of Kosovo depends on the relations with their neighbours. Being independent or not, it is still on the Balkans, next to (central) Serbia, only a few hundred kilometres from Belgrade. One may like it or not, but the people are simply related on each other.