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Donald Duck Meets Corruption in Serbia

Corruption is as old as society and exists in every country in the world. Often it floats just below the surface, taken for granted, tolerated, even accepted as part of the human condition. Corruption becomes newsworthy, however, when two conditions are met: when it becomes massive - when it is diffused through all of a society’s institutions and distorts the normal functioning both of the system and the morals of the population; and when it becomes possible to write about it. Both of these conditions have been fulfilled in my country, Serbia.

I have been living in Serbia since my birth. Even under the regime of Slobodan Milosevic corruption was not as significant as it is today. The worst thing is that corruption in Serbia has become a fashion, a trend – you have to be “in”, your material circumstances are much better if you participate in the game, and money means power and rank.

I live in a small town near the Hungarian border that was founded in the 14th century. Its existence throughout the centuries at a multinational crossroads has endowed it with an abundance of creativity, spirituality, and a love of art that give my town its unique atmosphere and its noteworthy artistic and architectural heritage. My town was a charming and peaceful place to live until the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. Then everything changed. Two huge waves of refugees arrived in my town from Bosnia –Herzegovina in 1992 and from Croatia in 1995. The bombing of Serbia by NATO forces in 1999 left significant traces on my town as well. Even though my town is a small one, nowadays it is a haven for big criminals. These are people whose names we dare not mention, or they make us regret it. These are people who deal drugs in public, who are involved in prostitution and usury.

Reporting them to the police is futile. They have paid off the police and courts. The files with charges against them are deliberately hushed up, locked away in secret drawers. We know this from a letter written by a group of honest policemen to the Ministry of Police and to the Public Prosecutor for organized corruption that was published by an on-line newspaper. The letter revealed the names of the policemen and prosecutors who had accepted bribes and the extent of their logistical support of criminal activity. Yet, despite a flurry of denunciations, soul-searching, and a few low-level arrests, the “big bosses” are still working.

Corruption has only got worse, infecting all government services, institutions and offices. Like a virus, it permeates the pores of society, and everything has started to rot from the inside. First, the police co-operated with criminals, and then they organized criminal activities themselves. Customs officials co-operated with smugglers. Those in position of influence banded together to steal public funds and property, creating a unique theft oligarchy.

Although I have been living under such corrupt circumstances for the last 20 years, I do not want my children to learn to live in such a corrupted society. One day, at the end of the school term, my son came home and told me that a certain boy’s father had come to school with a pair of new sneakers and a thick envelope, which he’d handed over to the physical education teacher. The teacher accepted the gift without comment and granted an “A” grade to this boy, who was, in fact, one of his worst students. How does one explain such behavior to a child?

My friend is an accountant at a book-keeping firm. She told me about a construction client who had received a visit from the tax authorities. The tax officer found that the company had failed to pay taxes on the construction of certain apartment buildings. The officer intended to file a complaint, but after she received a phone call she suddenly changed her mind. Apparently, the caller reminded her about a bribe she had received in the past that might be revealed if she pressed ahead with the charges.

The results of a 2010 survey(1) conducted for the United Nations Development Program, probably understate the extent to which the average citizen is affected by bribery and corruption. According to the survey, the inhabitants of Serbia mostly bribe their doctors, police officers and government clerks. Almost 40% of those surveyed claimed that they themselves, or their relatives, had bribed somebody. Eleven percent confirmed that they were involved in corruption, and 37% said they had been asked to pay a bribe for services.

I used to work for a large, profitable transportation company. Every day our drivers needed extra cash to pay off traffic policemen, who would routinely stop them for minor infractions and violations. Even when they had proper documentation the police cited them for nonsensical issues. For example, one driver had a form copied from the webpage of the Ministry of Police, but the policeman who stopped him was not satisfied with its shape. It was printed in “landscape” format, rather than “portrait” format, so he refused to accept it. He detained the driver for two hours, until the driver finally offered him a certain sum. Once he had pocketed the money, the officer let the driver go without punishment.

This scenario is repeated endlessly throughout Serbia, and everyone knows the drill. When a policeman stops you, you can be sure he will find a reason to fine you, and his first sentence will be something like: “Do you know that for this violation you have to pay 5.000 RSD (50 EUR), or I will send you to court?” I should point out that the average income in Serbia is approximately 100-250 EUR per month, making this initial offer far beyond most people’s means. So the negotiation begins:

The accused: “I do not have that sum of money.”
The policeman: “If you pay 2000 RSD (20 EUR) I will let you go.”
The accused: “That is too much for me, I have only 500 RSD (5 EUR), if you want them.”
The policeman: “OK, I accept, you can go.”
And so it goes, 500 RSD here, 1000 RSD there – a whole subterranean system of quasi-taxation that benefits those in power and leaves the rest of the population frustrated and resentful.

So how does Donald Duck fit into this tale of woe? Ljubisa Milanovic is a Special Advisor to the Ministry of Health, tasked with fighting corruption. Recently he appeared on a popular program on state run television to tell the following story:

“Two months ago I went to the City Police Station in Belgrade with complete documents and evidence prepared to press charges in a case. When I arrived, the head of the department was watching a Donald Duck cartoon on his computer. He ignored me until the action had quieted down and finally asked about the purpose of my visit. He asked me if I had all the documents and when I answered ‘yes’ he told me, ‘In that case you can bring criminal charges against this person yourself.’ Unfortunately, the cartoon never ended and it continues even to this day.”

After Milanovic’s appearance, the Minister of Health, Zoran Stankovic, in an interview with “Danas” (“Today”) newspaper, stated that his Special Advisor – who had just publicly accused the Prosecutor for organized crime, the BIA (Serbia’s FBI equivalent), and the Ministry of Justice of obstructing the fight against corruption – had merely given his personal opinion, but that he would not be fired for now. (2) I was therefore not surprised to learn, as I was about to submit this piece for publication, that on January 5th President Boris Tadic and his cabinet finally forced Milanovic to resign.(3)

Milanovic has been a source of irritation to the Minister of Health from the day he was nominated as Special Advisor. There was tremendous pressure not to appoint Milanovic because he was well-known as the former head of the “Poskok” or “Viper” group, tasked with solving the worst crimes in the country. His nomination represented a threat to many people in power. Milanovic is known for his qualities of integrity and fairness both of which have also caused him a great deal of suffering in our rotten system. His is a lonely voice, crying out amid Serbia’s rampant corruption. I hope it will not be permanently silenced.

According to Transparency International, an organization whose stated mission is “… to create change towards a world free of corruption,” Serbia ranked 78th in the “Corruption Perceptions Index” or CPI rankings in 2010, falling to 86th place in 2011. TI ranks 183 countries on a scale of 0-10, where 0 means that a country is perceived as highly corrupt, and 10 means that a country is perceived as very clean. Out of all former Yugoslav countries, the highest ranked is Slovenia, which takes 35th place with a score of 5.9; Croatia and Montenegro share the 66th place; Macedonia is 69th; and Bosnia-Herzegovina ranks even lower than Serbia, taking 91st place with a score of 3.2. (4)

All of these countries experienced a transition period after the break-up in the early 1990s. Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, which experienced the most violent and protracted upheavals, are, not surprisingly, lagging behind their neighbors in many development indices. Unfortunately for Serbia, many of the socio-economic coping mechanisms that characterize its transition – an underground economy, irregular economic and business transactions, smuggling and black-marketeering, workplace theft, illegal construction and above all bribery and corruption - have since become endemic. That is, they are accepted practices and are no longer a moral issue for many people.

Additionally, due to the lack of adequate legal procedures and regulations these practices are not treated as serious violations, and there are virtually no consequences for engaging in them. The circumstances that caused them and which permanently reproduce them are known: unsolved constitutional and statehood questions, economic depression, hyperinflation, a drastic pauperization and the disintegration of social structures, a high rate of unemployment, internal political turmoil, and lack of cooperation between political parties.

Making matters even worse is the fact that two-thirds of the country’s broadcasters and publications are either directly or indirectly controlled by the state, according to the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia’s Center for Investigative Journalism.
Investigative journalism is not widespread, both due to economic hardship and the fact that reporters who want to dig into corruption need the support of their employer and coworkers. The stories that have been done have exposed the construction mafia, the road construction mafia and corruption at the Port of Belgrade, to name a few.

Serbia’s government did set up an Anti-Corruption Council in 2001, tasked with evaluating anti-corruption initiatives and suggesting measures to make this fight more effective. However, the Council’s most important reports, which have been presented to the government, are still being “processed” and so far remain unresolved. The individuals and companies mentioned in these reports are under the protection of the government. By contrast, criminal charges that accuse the President of the Anti-Corruption Council of slander, brought by individuals mentioned in the Council’s reports, are processed immediately.

Corruption has to be prevented; it is not enough only to talk about it. If we want to reduce corruption and improve living conditions for all inhabitants of Serbia, and to pave the way for a better future for our children, we must change the law that carries corruption in itself. We must also professionalize our civil service by ensuring that they are competent, well-trained, and paid enough that they needn’t rely on bribes to live decently. There must be laws to prevent nepotism, cronyism and “brotherhoods”. It is imperative to implement a system of internal financial controls, independent of current political trends, to ensure that taxpayer money goes into projects that benefit society and not into the pockets of politicians.

The most important change however, is a shift in consciousness. The Serbian people must change the way they think about corruption. If most Serbians continue to accept corruption as inevitable, if they do not unite and demand an end to the status quo, if the will of the people is not behind this change, then we should not expect somebody else to do it for us.
(1) “How to initiate the anticorruption measures in Serbia”-performed by THC Medium under the Project of UNDP
(2)(“Danas” December 15, 2011)
(3) “Alo” newspaper 05.01.2012.
(4)For Serbian statistics visit: www.transparentnost.org.rs; for English and to check your country’s ranking visit: www.transparency.org

This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.

Comments

noreens's picture

interesting

Wow you already finished your assignment! As I was reading it, especially the paragraphs about your town, I was thinking that we must be living in the same town! It all sounds very familiar. Interesting article. You did a good job, Duda!

Noreen

Duda's picture

Dear Noreen,

Please, accept my apologies for the delay in responding to your e-mail. I was not in Serbia and I had not internet conection.

Thank you for your comments.

Duda

WILDKat's picture

Replacing the corrupt or incompetant

The latest news connected to Mr. Milanovic - a Special Advisor to the Ministry of Health, you wrote about,
was forced to give his resignation by the people from the cabinet of Serbian President-Boris Tadic.

You are impacting your community, Dubravka. Good going!

Naturally grateful,
Kat Haber

"Know thyself." ~ Plato

usha kc's picture

Wow! love your article

Wow! love your article Duda.
you already done your assignment!!! :))

Duda's picture

Dear Usha,

Please, accept my apologies for the delay in responding to your e-mail. I was not in Serbia and I had not internet conection.

I tried to do my best.

Thank you,
Duda

Paulina Lawsin's picture

Congratulations Duda. I can

Congratulations Duda. I can identifiy with you on the topic. Corruption is killing us softly. It is a social cancer. And you are a hard act to follow for coming up with your article ahead of the deadline.

Thumbs up sister!

Paulina

Duda's picture

Dear Paulina,

Please, accept my apologies for the delay in responding to your e-mail.

Yes, corruption is a social cancer.

Thank you,
Duda

treasureland's picture

Beautiful piece

Corruption is what we are battling with right now in Nigeria.

Nice work Duda.

CHEERS

Ifesinachi

Duda's picture

Dear Sister,

Please, accept my apologies for the delay in responding to your e-mail. I was not in Serbia and I had not internet conection.

I am informed about situation in Nigeria.
I hope that you are Ok and safe. Watch out for yourself.

Best wishes,
Duda

Celine's picture

Wow

Wow, corruption every where in the world! I wonder why police all over the world go with these negative things.

Congratulations for coming up with this piece.

Celine.

Duda's picture

Dear Celine,

Please, accept my apologies for the delay in responding to your e-mail. I was not in Serbia and I had not internet connection.

Thank you for your comments.
I hope that you are Ok and safe.
Watch out for yourself.

Best wishes,
Duda

Leslie Stoupas's picture

Citizen Journalism

Your article mentions that even journalism is corrupt in Serbia. That just reiterates the need for citizen journalists like you! Great job and a very interesting article!

Leslie Stoupas

Duda's picture

Dear Leslie,

thank you for take your time and read my assignment.
I agreed with you, but here, in Serbia, are so many things that we are needed for.
Duda

What strand of truth are you tracking which also flows in other communities?

I honor your courage in writing about this less than lovely aspect of life in Serbia.

When a light shines, truth reveals hope.

I am hopeful that as women write about the rights which could flourish on Earth for our children,
that we gather wisdom together to collaborate with women ascending in power to represent a brighter future now.

Naturally grateful,
Kat Haber

"Know thyself." ~ Plato

WILDKat's picture

Corruption affects us all

As you write of corruption and will do a piece later this year using digital storytelling,
I thought you might find this of interest.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AA-MDD8Y7Uc

Naturally grateful,
Kat Haber

"Know thyself." ~ Plato

Breese's picture

Duda, this is a very powerful

Duda, this is a very powerful article that sheds light on important and interconnecting issues affecting your society. It's amazing how deep and entrenched corruption can be, and it's so important to speak up and remind people that it is unacceptable. Your voice is strong and brave!

Duda's picture

Dear Breese,

thank you for reading my article and for your comment. I am afraid that this situation, in Serbia, could be worse, but I hope that it would not happened.

Duda

Jensine's picture

Excellent piece

Dearest Duda -

I love your Title! Title is the great way to capture attention - and you have done that. And, then, the story is rich and illuminating. I love your personal story - your perspective on your children growing up in such a corrupt society. I think you are right about the shift in consciousness. And it will come about with more voices like yours speaking out until there is a vocal uprising. Have you heard of the technology called bribespot -where everyday citizens can use a cell phone to report bribes?

With respect and admiration,
Jensine

Jensine Larsen
World Pulse

Duda's picture

Dear Jensine,

thank you for taking time to read my piece. I value your comments so much and they means alot to me.

I have'nt heard of the technology called bribespot. Thank you for the information.

Duda

Sarah Whitten-Grigsby's picture

Your Module 2 Assignment

Hello, Duda,

Thank you for your excellent, well-written, completely professional article! I am so impressed with your writing, the strength of your voice, the inclusion of your personal experience, the impressive amount of information you give the reader in only a few pages.

Thank you. I am wiser because of your voice.

Joy to you,

- Sarah

Sarah Whitten-Grigsby

Duda's picture

Dear Sarah,

thank you for reading my article and for you comments. I am glad that you liked it and that it has contributed to you deeper understanding of this social issue.

Duda

Rachael Maddock-Hughes's picture

Powerful

What a powerful Story Duda! Thank you so much for sharing. I sat engrossed in the story from beginning to end. You are a marvelous writer and I encourage you to keep up the great work!

Kind regards,

Rachael

"In every human heart there are a few passions that last a lifetime. They're with us from the moment we're born, and nothing can dilute their intensity." Rob Brezny

Duda's picture

Dear Rachael,

thank you for the encouragement.
You brought more light and positive energy in my life that you could not even imagine.

Thank you very much for that.

Duda

Caitlyn's picture

Well done Duda

Duda, what an incredible piece of writing. You have done an incredible piece of work here, and I very much enjoyed learning more about your country. I wish you the best of luck and lots of light in the fight against your country's corruption. Best wishes, Caitlyn

Duda's picture

Dear Caitlyn,

Please, accept my apologies for the delay in responding to your e-mail.
Thank you for reading my piece. I am glad that you liked it.

Best wishes,
Duda

mrbeckbeck's picture

Excellent

Duda, well done! I found this piece to be very interesting, because you speak about the specific case of corruption in your country, while connecting it to the experiences of people around the world.

Clearly there is a lot to be done to break the bad habit of corruption... speaking out like you've done here is an excellent start! I hope that with courageous leadership like yours there will be a brighter future for children in Serbia. You're very brave, and I applaud your work here.

Thank you,
Scott

Scott Beck
World Pulse Online Community Volunteer

Duda's picture

Dear Scott,

thank you for reading my piece and for you comments. It means a lot to me.
Best wishes, Duda

Amei's picture

Wonderful work

Well done. It is important we share stories. I read the story with great interest. Well written.

Serbia is not alone in the mess of corruption. All the best for the countries in the same situation. Wish you the courage to write and hope in time you achieve your dream.

Regards
Amei

MaDube's picture

Dubravka my dear

I have only ever known about the levels of corruption in Serbia from movies, one by Angelina Jolie where she is a UNHCR rep and is looking for her friend who has been captured by the different fighting parties and another "The Whistleblower" of a woman who works for the UN and is fighting trafficking but fails to prove her case because the corruption runs from police officials, military officers and even the members of the UN Police sent to keep the peace. I however found your own personal experiences captivating and more real especially when you explain how growing up among such levels of corruption strengthened your resolve to fight corruption. Keep that resolve strong and know that we stand in solidarity with you.

Best,

MaDube

Greengirl's picture

Hello Duda

Your title stirred my interest to read, as I really wanted to understand your motivation for it. I loved the way you approached the the subject by going from general to specifics. To say the least, I am glad that I read the article.
Corruption seems to be an endemic Global challenge. I once used to think that the most corrupt people in the world could be found only in Nigeria. It is not as if this notion has completely changed, anyway.
Aside what I know of my country, I have had a personal encounter in another country I visited and have, since woken up to the reality that Corruption knows no bounds and has no boundary. More so too, that man is man anywhere. Obviously, race, creed, gender, colour, class , location……………………does not in any way deter corruption; only a true sense of choosing to do right can.
Though Milanovic was badly treated, he remains a symbol of hope.
We may well keep speaking up, just as you have courageously done, in expectation that a lasting solution will materialize, someday, soon!

Cheers!

Olanike

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