Inside Serbia’s Anti-Corruption War

First, the most powerful politician in Serbia began arresting tycoons. Then he started getting more aggressive about pursuing political opponents. Now he’s conducting mass purges of his own party. We took a look at the “anti-corruption crusade” that’s been receiving so much uncritical praise lately, and tried to figure out whether or not Serbia’s becoming a dictatorship. 

The government in Belgrade is increasingly dominated by one man, Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic. Flip through a few glossy tabloids at any trafika in town and you’re likely to encounter the same thing: Images of the doughy Deputy Prime Minister looking stern and severe, calling for a new round of arrests. Depending on the week, his targets may be tycoons, “drug dealers”, or members of the political opposition. Vucic and the compromised press have all but ignored the presumption of innocence, and hundreds of individuals have been rounded up and placed in pretrial detention — in a country where court cases have been known to drag on for years or even decades.

Vucic was once a slavish devotee of Vojislav Seselj, the Hague war crimes indictee and Hannibal Lecter-like leader of the Serbian Radical Party. Now he heads the center-right Progressive Party, and has presided over an 18-month “anti-corruption campaign” that has received fawning praise in the West to the growing detriment of democracy and due process at home. But recent power struggles within his own party have revealed some cracks in his leadership, and raised more concerns that his crusade against crime is but another tool to blunt the opposition by any means necessary.

Earlier this month, Progressive MP Vladimir Cvijan announced that he would run for president against Vucic in the January 25th party elections. The response to this act of insubordination was characteristically heavy-handed: Vucic loyalists quickly labeled the 37-year-old lawmaker a “traitor” and demanded his expulsion from the party.

“Vucic’s first reaction to my candidacy was rage,” Cvijan told Balkanist in a recent interview at his office in the Serbian parliament building. “He couldn’t believe that anyone would run against him.”

In the current Vucic-dominated political climate, Cvijan’s announcement was indeed shocking. And he may very well have been expelled from the Progressives immediately if it weren’t for numerous objections from observers who felt such a move might be a bit undemocratic. Balkanist has learned that representatives from both the American and Russian embassies have communicated their concerns and urged the party to hold a plural election.

At the December 18th meeting of the party presidency, tensions exploded. Vucic alleges Cvijan was “rude” to him. Cvijan, meanwhile, claims that Vucic physically attacked him. Zorana Mihajlovic, Vice President of the Progressives and Minister of Energy, offered her version of events: “[Cvijan] is just embarrassing the party. What happened at the presidency only showed Cvijan’s arrogance and bad manners. Vucic actually saved him from half of the presidency, who wanted to beat him up because everyone’s sick of him acting like a hypocrite and a mercenary.”

While Vucic has been mostly silent about Cvijan’s candidacy, his inner circle has been dispatched to do the dirty work of denunciation. In recent weeks, party soldiers have been widely quoted in the press, pledging “mass and unanimous” support for their leader. The Novi Sad chapter of the Progressives issued a statement declaring that the party should be “cleansed of members such as Vladimir Cvijan”.

If Vucic has heeded international calls for restraint regarding next month’s vote, he has not stopped consolidating his power elsewhere. Earlier this week, Vucic purged 100 members of his own party from their positions, including the locally-elected mayors of Kraljevo and Uzice. The reasons for the removal of these officials have not been made public. And while rumors continue to spread throughout Serbia about expulsions, forced resignations, and arrests — no one really knows for sure who will be next.

Vucic assumed the post of Minister of Information under Slobodan Milosevic in 1998. The 28-year-old career politician’s new job required that he intimidate the independent media into silence, a task he approached with great enthusiasm. In October 1998, the Serbian parliament passed the most restrictive media law in Europe. The infamous decree was often referred to as the “Vucic Decree”, and his methods were so stringent that one Belgrade journalist described the minister as the “Serbian Taliban”.

He officially forbade the broadcast of any foreign news channel, including the BBC — the first time the British broadcaster had been banned in Serbia since it was outlawed during the Nazi occupation. Several Serbian lawyers, including ardent nationalist Vojislav Kostunica, openly opposed the decree. Vojin Dimitrijevic, a prominent expert in international law, claimed that Vucic’s restrictions existed some 50 years before — “in Nazi Germany and the Independent State of Croatia”.

The general director of the Deutsche Welle radio station also offered a dark appraisal of Vucic’s methods: “Censorship against the independent media in Serbia reminds one of the darkest period of the Cold War and the repression mechanisms employed by totalitarian regimes.”

During the late-1990s, rumors about arrests or the imminent shutdown of a media outlet would circulate in advance, creating an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear. One article from October 1998 described the paranoid mood:

On Tuesday evening, around 8:45 p.m., Belgrade was abuzz with rumor that “tonight three dailies will be closed down”, all of which are on Vucic’s blacklist. It is supposed that the first alarm came from someone’s source within the Serbian Ministry of Information.

The newspapers’ crimes, according to Vucic, had been “spreading fear, panic and defeatism”, “negative influence on the readiness of the population”, and “sarcasm”.

Vucic was also hostile to the internet, and later criminalized publishing “deceit” anywhere on the World Wide Web. In 1999, Digital Journalist reported:

Serbian Information Minister Aleksandar Vucic (e-mail is mirs@srbija-info.yu) has also added the Internet to the draconian new Serbian Law on Information passed by the Legislature in October. Minister Vucic specified that a web presentation of publications which commit “verbal or opinion deceit” would be fined between 10,000 and 80,000 US dollars.

The many critics of Vucic’s law said it had made it possible for “the media to be summarily sentenced, without due process or a chance to defend themselves before a court of law.” Several journalists, editors, and publishers were thrown in jail. Many more were fined and forced into bankruptcy, had their computers and other electronic equipment confiscated, and had to endure regular harassment from the authorities.

And Slavko Curuvija, the editor of Dnevni Telegraf, “had already been punished numerous times by the new law” when he was killed outside his home in Belgrade on April 11, 1999. It’s widely believed individuals working for the state security services were responsible for his death.

Vucic (Photo credit: Kurir)
Vucic (Photo credit: Kurir)

These days, Aleksandar Vucic gently presses his fingertips together. It’s an affected and studied pose: His fingers could not be seen in such a gesture just a few years ago, when he was still Seselj’s faithful underling. Nor could he be seen in the neat, rectangular glasses he sometimes wears now, which make him look like an inoffensive Brussels bureaucrat.

But it’s the new way he positions his hands, which body language experts call “steepling”, that is the most obvious sign of the Deputy Prime Minister’s calculated transformation from Seselj’s fanatical Secretary General to serious, sensible statesman. Steepling, the experts say, is used in superior-subordinate interactions to denote dominance. And sometimes, the steeple collapses into a prayer position when a powerful individual wants to appear “God-like”.

After Milosevic was toppled in 2000, Vucic stood by Seselj and the Radicals for eight years. But by 2008, some members of the party realized that they needed to chart a more moderate course. Tomislav Nikolic, now the grandfatherly President of Serbia, formed the pro-EU Progressive Party. After a period of deliberation, Vucic reluctantly agreed to join him.

Four years later, they were the most powerful party in Serbia. The Progressives won the 2012 parliamentary elections with 24 percent of the vote.

Party insiders say that’s when things began to change. Cvijan told Balkanist: “Vucic simply isn’t the same man he was before he assumed all of this power. His personality has undergone a steady transformation, and I think that all of us have been taken by surprise.”

Indeed, several months after the Progressives won the election, a former member of the youth branch of the party complained to Balkanist that Vucic had “started acting like a dictator”.

The elimination of the “corrupt” political class has come at a steep price. There are always new enemies, and pretty soon everyone will be in jail.

In July 2012, Vucic succeeded in changing the law on the Organization of Security Services, eliminating the requirement that the President’s Chief of Staff serve as the Secretary of the National Security Council. With the law revised, he seized the position for himself. This gave him full control over all of Serbia’s security agencies, including the notorious BIA, or secret service.

The Western media didn’t seem to notice, since colorful fireworks were bursting over EU celebrations in Zagreb and dialogue with Prishtina was proceeding at a surprisingly satisfactory pace. In an article from July 2012 titled “Serbia Enters Europe: The Bloody Balkan Wars Are Over”, one long-time Balkan correspondent wrote, “Serbia’s mindset is at last becoming (in Vucic’s word) ‘normal.’ And this stunning transformation has been so quiet that it has gone virtually unnoticed.”

But other transformations were going unnoticed as well. A few days after placing the entire state security apparatus under his control, Vucic managed to change the Law on the National Bank of Serbia, essentially revoking its autonomy. The National Bank’s governor resigned amid rumors that he would be dismissed. Jorgovanka Tabakovic, a loyal member of the Progressives and fellow reformed Radical who had served in Milosevic’s government, was elected to serve as the bank’s new governor. Out of the 166 MPs present for the emergency parliamentary session, 131 voted in favor of her appointment.

Earlier this month, news surfaced that Tabakovic’s daughter had enjoyed the services of a private chauffeur to drive her to and from her medical school classes at the expense of the state-owned Health Insurance Fund. Meanwhile, the Health Consumer Powerhouse report released earlier this month revealed that the Serbian health care system offers the worst “bang for your buck” of any health care system in Europe. The Serbian health care system was also rated Europe’s most corrupt. Though the report only measured one corruption-related indicator — under-the-table payments to doctors — Serbia’s scores were generally below those of neighboring countries across the board.

Balkanist received hundreds of internal government emails last month, and one piece of correspondence seemed to confirm the existence of corruption in the Serbian health care system — an area untouched by Vucic’s well-publicized and praised crusade: A senior official emailed a colleague saying that Serbia should send its heart surgery patients (who receive some state subsidies for treatments abroad) to a specific doctor in Northern Italy. In return, Serbian state hospitals would be the lucky recipients of outdated, used, or broken Italian medical equipment and supplies.

Instead of shutting down newspapers and radio stations like he did in the 1990s, Vucic has made the media his co-conspirators in a campaign to rid the political playing field of compromised officials. Some of his targets have undoubtedly been fantastically corrupt, while others have probably been more of a hindrance to his consolidation of power.

Most major arrests of tycoons or political opponents have been hyped as a media event in advance. Tabloids, especially the daily Kurir, operate as mouthpieces for the government, and accuse individuals of sensational crimes for which they have yet to be charged.

Earlier this month, the owners of Kurir purchased a one hundred percent stake in Adria Media Serbia. The new acquisition has created one of the largest media companies in the Western Balkans, and means a powerful pro-Vucic conglomerate now owns two daily newspapers, 14 digital publications, and 18 magazines.

This consolidation of media power is especially troubling given the growing propensity to remove, hack, or censor articles critical of politicians or even the tabloid journalists who support them.

When Serbia’s Center for Investigative Journalism published a report about the National Bank director’s daughter and her state-funded private chauffeur, hackers attacked their website and deleted the story.

In November, Kurir published an article claiming that parents of a little girl who had recently died had collected and possibly spent the charity funds they’d raised for their daughter’s expensive heart surgery. A BBC journalist from Serbia wrote an open letter to Kurir criticizing what ended up being entirely false allegations against the girl’s grieving parents. Several Serbian media outlets published the BBC journalist’s letter online, but quickly deleted it — presumably under pressure from individuals close to the government.

The Serbian media is now busy linking Cvijan’s decision to participate in the January elections with Miroslav Miskovic, the country’s richest man and best-known tycoon. The billionaire’s arrest a year ago has been Vucic’s most popular move so far and has undoubtedly helped boost his approval rating, which currently stands at 69 percent. (Vucic’s well-established popularity with the electorate makes the fervor with which he and his supporters have attempted to expel a rival candidate all the more disconcerting.)

Cvijan is a criminal defense attorney by profession, and has defended a number of high-profile  individuals accused of breaking various laws. Some cite this as a conflict of interest. They claim tycoons are paying him to run, and say he only wants to defeat Vucic so that his guilty clients can walk free.

But Cvijan says he agrees that allegations of corruption should be investigated — he just disagrees with the way suspects and their cases are being handled by the current government. “[The accused] should have a fair trial, and shouldn’t be denied rights guaranteed by our Constitution and law,” he explained.

Vucic pursues individuals suspected of corruption by completely circumventing the law: “In the past several months, all potential arrests of businessmen and opposition politicians have been planned at sessions of the party presidency. The party’s top decision-making body resembles Cold War-era UDBA [Yugoslavia’s secret service] meetings. Vucic has usurped all power and removed it from legitimate state institutions.”

All of the accused have been members of the political opposition. A lengthy article in the current print version of Vreme lists the names of 57 active members of the Democratic Party who’ve been arrested and detained over the last 18 months. Only one case has gone to trial.

But Vucic vehemently denies that his anti-corruption crusade is politically-motivated. “It’s not my fault if [the Democratic party] were in power for 12 years and they were involved in almost every criminal case in the country,” he told the Financial Times in October.

Of course, many members of the Democratic Party are likely to have participated in corruption and should go to jail if they’re guilty. But most people know they’re hardly alone. Just yesterday, two talented young Deputy Ministers from the Progressive Party were dismissed. We’ll have to wait and see how much further Vucic will go.

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Lily Lynch

Lily is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Balkanist Magazine. She lives in Belgrade, Serbia.