In Serbia, the Mask Slips

Serbia will hold parliamentary elections on March 16. But the resignation of the economy minister indicates that the strongman who is all but certain to become prime minister this spring is growing increasingly ruthless — and reckless.  

Two major events — one anticipated, the other less so — have shaken the Serbian media today. As has long been expected, Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic formally dissolved the parliament, and announced early, nationwide parliamentary elections for March 16 this afternoon — via Instagram.

But the other, unforeseen news concerned the resignation letter published by Economy Minister Sasa Radulovic, which contained serious allegations of corruption against Serbia’s most powerful politician and its number one power-consolidating, oligarch-taming, corruption crusader, Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic.

In a long and detailed resignation letter, Radulovic alleged that Vucic and his staff have been directly involved in covering up numerous instances of corruption. Many of the scandals Radulovic names are already well known to the Serbian public: Vucic and his staff were accused of involvement in shady sales of major, state-owned companies, including the wine producer Vrsacki vinogradi and hydraulics manufacturer Prva petoletka. The former minister also alleged that Vucic and his team actively undermined efforts to investigate corruption within the Bankruptcy Supervision Agency, the Development Fund, the Privatization Agency, and the Serbian Investment and Export Promotion Agency. (Balkanist is in possession of hundreds of leaked SIEPA documents that appear to reveal a complex network of corruption and cronyism within the agency).

Prior to joining the government last September, Radulovic frequently criticized the government’s approach to transition from a planned to a market economy on his blog for the Serbian broadcaster B92. He also spent several years in Silicon Valley, where he raised millions of dollars for a startup that he eventually sold to Adobe.

Radulovic was also a supporter of the so-called “white ballot” movement during the 2012 elections that brought Vucic’s Progressive Party (SNS) to power, calling on voters to cast a blank ballot in protest against all political options on offer. He is still non-partisan today. Vucic tapped him for the position of economy minister after a major reshuffling of the government in September.

“All this time, the government never worked as a team” Radulovic wrote in his resignation letter. “There are no debates during government sessions. The fear members of the government feel is visible. Other government ministers have problems [similar to mine], but don’t dare discuss them publicly.”

Radulovic explained that none of the economic reforms he proposed were ever adopted, and that the state’s budget for this year is completely unsustainable. As an example, he cited the government’s dependency on an expected budget income of three billion euros from the sheiks of the United Arab Emirates — even though no contracts have been signed and no written obligations by the UAE have been made.

In addition, the government recently withdrew several bills from consideration, sabotaging key legislation and reform Radulovic has been pushing for on the Labor Law, the Privatization and Bankruptcy Law, and two supporting laws.

He also says that protests held by national unions against his proposed legislation were “staged” by political parties in an effort to halt his reforms, and “maintain the doomed economic policies of the past ten years.” He added that the rationale for such theatrics was to allow “political parties to retain control over the public sector at the expense of Serbian citizens.”

The former economy minister emphasized that the main individual “putting the brakes” on his proposed reforms was Deputy Prime Minister Vucic.

According to Radulovic’s resignation letter, the government’s policy is to appoint directors of state-owned companies and agencies based on their party affiliation — regardless of their expertise or abilities. “Refusing to accept such a policy has brought the ministry of the economy into serious conflict with the deputy prime minister’s cabinet,” he wrote.

Radulovic also complained that he’d been subjected to a “media lynching” by numerous tabloids, many of which are believed to be close to the government. Headlines have screamed that the former minister is a spy, that he earns a high salary, and that his children have been taken to the emergency room for physical injuries — with the insinuation that he was somehow responsible.

“The media lynch is part of media darkness that spreads fear,” Radulovic warned. He also noted that self-censorship in the media is at “an incredibly high level”, that “news is being smothered”, and characterized the general atmosphere of fear and control of the press as “part of the mud [Serbia] is sinking into.”

Allegations of media darkness have been supported by two scandals in recent days. First, Sasa Radulovic was invited to be the guest of the week on a popular political talk show, Utisak nedelje (“Impression of the Week”) on Sunday evening, to discuss the reasons for his resignation. But the day before the show, the host suddenly announced that Aleksandar Vucic would appear instead. The incident sparked an uproar on social media, but was mostly ignored by Serbia’s “mainstream media”.

The second incident occurred yesterday, when Radulovic published his formal resignation letter on the Ministry of the Economy’s website. A major state-owned and government-controlled news agency, Tanjug, briefly published a news story about the letter on their website, with the following headline: “Radulovic: The Main Inhibitor of the Reforms is Vucic’s Cabinet”. But just 15 minutes later, all traces of the article were removed from the website, and replaced with a statement from 29-year-old Minister of Finance Lazar Krstic: “Krstic: Vucic is a Reformer.” (After more public uproar on the internet, Tanjug later republished the original article.)

Vucic, who has been accused of using allegations of crime and corruption to jail opponents and keep other politicians compliant, moved swiftly this time: Earlier today, his Progressive party called for an “urgent investigation” into the “variety of criminal acts” supposedly perpetrated by Radulovic — a minister Vucic selected himself just months ago. To many discussing the announcement on social media this afternoon, the move seemed an unambiguous act of retribution against a politician who had dared to talk out of turn. It also seemed to indicate that Vucic is rapidly abandoning any pretense to impartiality in his crusade against crime.

UPDATE: The Ministry of the Economy has removed Sasa Radulovic’s resignation letter from its website. 

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