Two Cheers for the Serbian Government
July 3, 2013 · By John Feffer
Residual anti-communist beliefs that current state structures are only cosmetically altered versions of the old system have had to be overcome.
Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.
It’s not easy to find people in East-Central Europe who will put in a good word for government.
First there are all the traditional complaints: government is slow, inefficient, corrupt. On top of that is the residual anti-communist belief that current state structures are only cosmetically altered versions of the old system. Then throw in the more fashionable neo-liberal critique of government as too large and crippling the invisible hand of the market. Finally add all the non-governmental organizations that are devoted to demonstrating that government is not accountable, not delivering the right services, not guaranteeing human rights, and so on.
Put this all together and government is not part of the solution, it’s part of the problem. Indeed, for many people, it is the problem. This is hardly unique to the region. Anti-government sentiment is quite popular even in the United States, where we have government of, for, and by the people who dislike government.
It can also be quite difficult to disentangle the agendas of political parties from the everyday work of unelected civil servants. In Hungary, for instance, the government of Victor Orban has attracted international condemnation for pushing through controversial amendments to the constitution. But the Hungarian government also consists of the constitutional court and the office of the ombudsman, both of which have pushed back against Orban’s creeping authoritarianism. Obviously government is not just one, undifferentiated entity.
Danilo Vukovic currently works for an NGO in Serbia — the Development Initiative Group (Secons) – but he has also worked in government and with the United Nations. He has a more charitable view of the Serbian government than many of his colleagues from other NGOs.
“Because I’ve worked for the government,” he told me in an interview at his Belgrade office in October, “I don’t think it’s all black and white. When you’re in government, you also meet many people who want to do the work they’re supposed to do, but they meet obstacles. And the obstacles are not always political. It’s not that somebody wants to block you, but things are complicated and difficult, and you can’t change them so easily. If it were easy, we would probably be Switzerland at this point.”
In research projects at Secons, Vukovic has evaluated the improvements in government performance in Serbia – the training of staff, the implementation of new guidelines, the improvement of the technology and infrastructure – and identified weaknesses in decisionmaking and intra-government mobility. Challenges notwithstanding, the professionalism of Serbian officials has markedly improved since his first visit to government offices in 2002.
“But they are never as good as we would like,” he said. “Probably people living in Liechtenstein say, “Well, our government is not good enough.” On the other hand, our government is for sure better in the areas that I know than the governments in Montenegro or Bosnia. People working with the Croatian government claim that the difference with Serbia is not so big as you would imagine, considering that Croatia is about to join the EU. So, this is another sign that Serbia has a more developed administration.”
Vukovic is now focused on the legislative process in Serbia – how laws are created, influenced, and enacted. We talked in particular about social policy and its impact on marginalized populations such as the Roma, refugees, and people with disabilities. He is interested most of all in the nuts and bolts of policy: how to make what might seem to be small alterations in rules, regulations, and laws that nevertheless have a major impact on the quality of life of Serbian citizens.
Do you remember where you were when you heard the news of the fall of the Berlin Wall?
No. But I do remember where I was when I heard the news that Tito died, which was eight years ago before. That says something about the importance of the events for me.
Tell me about where you were when you heard about Tito’s death.
We heard about it in preschool, and people were crying. I remember going back home. My parents were there, and my aunt and uncle, and they were in the opposition in those days. They were not celebrating, but they were in a rather cheerful mood for a group of people whose leader has died. So I remember that quite well. My cousin – the daughter of that aunt and uncle — and me went to the same preschool, lived in the same neighborhood, and were the same age. We were warned at our school that we hadn’t been mourning, that we hadn’t been sad enough under the circumstances, so our parents might be called in for an interview. This is what I clearly remember, and I very often recall these events. But I can’t recall where I was or how I learned about the Berlin Wall.
It sounds like you grew up in a rather political family.
How did you come to realize that the politics of your family was very different from the politics outside your family?
The first things were employment and housing policy. You would enter the labor market to get a job. But employment was not only the workplace. It involved various social policies. My parents rented an apartment, which was quite unusual for people of their status. They didn’t own an apartment, and they moved a lot. We moved four or five times, which was quite unusual. And my father was in a part-time job for quite a long period of time. When Sonja Licht’s husband Milan Nikolic got arrested, that was a period when politics truly and completely entered into our family life, because we went there and visited his wife and their children. They were quite close to us, and we spent a lot of time together. That’s when it all started.
Did your parents ever sit you down and say, “You have to be a little careful”? Because as you said, you had that experience at school…
No, never. They were not so politically active. They had visits from the police and stuff like that, but my father was not really arrested, nor my mother. She had a regular job at the school, so in that sense there was no real threat, as far as I can recall, apart from the various difficulties that those who do not comply with the rules of the game had to put up with at that time.
Was there a moment in your life when you felt that you became a political activist?
The first time was in the early 1990s, during my second year of high school. We were part of the first democratic movement. A friend of mine and me, and some other guys, we organized protests and we rallied the kids from the high school and took them downtown where all the students were demonstrating. We spent some time there, had a good time, and went back to school when we really had to go. Everything ended in a few days. The demonstrations didn’t last a long period of time.
And then a friend of mine got expelled from school due to his political engagement. He went to the Czech Republic and made a great management career in international corporations. A few years ago, he returned to Serbia, rich and with a Brazilian wife. He lives in Dedinje, which is the most expensive part of town where really rich people live. And now he’s a head of the public utility company dealing with electricity. And he’s cadre, as the party official of the Serbian Progressive Party. So he has closed the circle!
We had a series of radical political engagements that culminated in the most important and long-lasting one in 1996-7. Many of the people working here at this organization were part of these student protests.
Many of our friends from that period went on to political careers. One of them has reached the deputy prime minister level. Another is an MP. They are prominent figures in public life.
And these people were a part of the student movement?
A lot of people complain about the current government. They say, “It’s the same people who were in government in the 1990s!” But as you point out, some people who were actually part of the opposition have been absorbed into the current government, or as you said, “the cadre.” So there’s a little bit more circulation of political figures than I’ve been led to believe.
I know the situation in several ministries with which I work, like labor employment, economy and regional development, social protection, and stuff like that. At that level, there has been a circulation of people.
Also there’s a tendency for academics to get involved in politics, a tradition here that goes back to the 19th century. I work at the school of law—the faculty of law at Belgrade University—and recently we’ve opened a museum that presents the history of our faculty. And there have been so many prime ministers, deputy prime ministers, and ministers that have come from the faculty. They were prominent political figures and at the same time university teachers. That’s a feature of our political life, as well as a characteristic of our academic elite. There have been some analyses of why this is the case. The academic elite, through their academic career and writing and public engagement apart from politics, did not really manage to achieve the modernization goals that they thought were important for Serbia. So they have a strong incentive to enter politics.
I don’t really think that it’s the same people in government. But you get a strong impression from the most visible figures. When you look at the Democratic Party that is now in opposition – and I counted this up in an article a year and a half ago – there’s a rather large number of high-ranking officials from 2000. And they’re the newcomers, if we’re talking about a timeframe of two decades. For the Socialists and the Progressive Party, their most prominent figures have been in high politics for two to three decades. That’s true. But they are not the whole political elite.
So you decided to go into law, get a law degree…
I have a law and society degree, so I’m not a lawyer.
Why did you decide to take that particular path?
It’s sort of the family tradition. At one point the choices were either physics or philosophy, and then I chose philosophy. I did a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and then sociology, and then a social legal studies PhD.
Did you have a particular job in mind for when you finished?
I always thought that I would be working as I do now. But there was a rather long period in between when I was engaged in the private sector. And I worked for the government in international organizations. I enjoyed it for a while, and then I ran away.
Which international organizations?
I worked for the UN here in Serbia. I had some offers to go abroad, but then I thought, “This is not my cup of tea,” and I gave it up. The offer was to be a head of the poverty unit in a big Asian country, and due to the transparency of the recommended procedure I cannot say which country it was. I would probably have been living there in a rented house with a salary of $7,000 per month, and I would be dealing with people who live on $1.8 or $2.8 per day. For me that’s no choice at all. Somebody else can do it, I can’t.
So tell me a little bit about your work here and what you’re focusing on, and how you came to work here.
I came here because a few of us gathered a long time ago, and I was one of the people who founded this organization, the Development Initiative Group (SeConS). I was never involved in the management or decision-making. My role was always to help. I’m not a full-time employee. I’m here on a project basis. But in the last year it’s been rather continuous work.
My work primarily focuses on public policy analysis. We’ve produced research and analysis of the various issues related to social inclusion. We have analyzed European and Serbian policies in this broad field and produced a book. We have also prepared a course on social inclusion. Our public policies in Serbia have been focused on poverty reduction, following the World Bank paradigm. We’ve also had researchers with different academic backgrounds focused on a more sociological approach to material inequalities, not only the lack of material resources but also the lack of cultural capital, social capital, access to services, and so on. We’ve wanted to introduce these new concepts, which are new even in the European context of the last two or three decades. We produced an online course, which has also been printed, for government officials. It’s user-friendly, with lots of short articles pointing out various data, indicators, public policy issues, and so on. And we’ve worked a lot with local self-governments on setting up indicators that attempt to measure poverty and social inclusion at that level. And then we worked with them to design their own tools and policies and measures. This is sort of pioneering work.
The second line of work—and that’s primarily what I do here—concerns the legislative process and how to translate the various social interests into laws. Within the framework of this project we’re analyzing a set of laws: how these laws were enacted, what policy networks were in place, what interests drive the laws. We’ve analyzed the process of drafting the laws and how they went through the parliament. We conducted a series of audio interviews with MPs and asked them how they got engaged, how they work on laws, how they deal with amendments, and so on. The aim has been to identify what social interests translate into law, how they translate, what social groups influence the policy-making process, and where parliament fits into this picture. We hope that, in the end, this policy-making process might be more open for relevant groups, because the research shows that some of these groups are systematically left out of the process and don’t benefit from the overall development. This applies specifically to those living in rural, underdeveloped areas: Roma, elderly, certain subgroups of women, and so on.
Have you noticed, over the course of time you’ve engaged with government people, an improvement in the professionalism of government employees?
Yes. My first interaction with government officials was in late 2002. That was actually the first time I entered a government building. In that period, the offices had few computers, and the bookshelves were roughly 70 years old, the same kind we had in our high school, which was one of the oldest in the country and which hadn’t been renovated for at least 100 years. So my impression was that time had stopped there in the 1960s.
So this is the first change, which is quite evident: adopting information and communication technology, adopting new management procedures, hiring new people (perhaps even over-hiring). There has been a huge increase in the number of government officials here, even though the size of our country actually shrank. Our government has taken over all of the former federal employees that worked in Belgrade, and the federal government was in Belgrade.
Was there a promise to hire everybody from the federal system?
I think that was just something that was understood as normal.
Was there a duplication of people from the federal level and at the republic level?
They were just merged with the institutions at the level of republic. This actually happened in a gradual way, because for 15 years we had a federation with Montenegro, and we had some limited federal government. So it didn’t happen overnight.
Let’s go back to the government. I think that the most visible progress was actually in adopting this new language. When you go there now it’s all about strategies, action plans, HR procedures. They’ve adopted all the fancy words and concepts. Their day-to-day work is thoroughly changed. That has been a great influence of international organizations. First, there was the UN, then the European Agency for Reconstruction, which was ahead of the EU here, and various international organizations like the Open Society Foundation and Save the Children. The research that we conducted shows that they have been training many people throughout the 1990s and early 2000s in new skills and paradigms in the areas of employment, education, social protection, social insurance, even local economic development. I’m not sure about other issues, like mining or public electricity.
There is a problem with the Serbian government in terms of the low mobility of staff. People get employed in a certain ministry and can end their careers there 20 years later without ever being introduced to another ministry. You have people working in the ministry of social affairs, dealing with welfare services and benefits like social assistance. They continuously overlap with the healthcare system, the employment agencies, and so on, but they never go to these agencies or ministries to spend some time there to learn what they do. That’s one problem we discovered in our research.
The other problem is that the decision-making structure is not favorable for performance. You have political figures, like the minister or the state secretary, and then you have the assistant ministers. On paper, assistant ministers are the heads of units within the ministry, and they are the ones truly in charge of the day-to-day operations of the ministry. However, in reality, these people are not powerful enough to make decisions on their own, without the consent of the minister: even not-so-important issues. This logic then transfers down to the heads of smaller units so that the decision-making process is burdened by reluctance on one side and a desire to hold all the power on the other side.
So, yes, things have improved. But they are never as good as we would like. Probably people living in Liechtenstein say, “Well, our government is not good enough.” On the other hand, our government is for sure better in the areas that I know than the governments in Montenegro or Bosnia. People working with the Croatian government claim that the difference with Serbia is not so big as you would imagine, considering that Croatia is about to join the EU. So, this is another sign that Serbia has a more developed administration.
On the question of social inclusion, I’ve noticed there is considerable poverty here and I was told that the average wage here is the lowest in the region. Low wages have proven useful in attracting foreign business, but in general it means a pretty vulnerable population. Do you see any positive signs in terms of poverty alleviation and social integration over the last couple of years?
Over the last couple of years, the situation has been getting worse, and the statistical data confirms this. The absolute poverty line has increased from roughly 6 point something percent to close to 10%. We have regional pockets of poverty that are not really just pockets anymore. Whole regions have been severely hit by poverty, structural poverty with strong historical roots. These regions — Southeastern Serbia, Eastern Serbia — have been traditionally underdeveloped. Eastern Serbia has changed in the last 20 years due to the deterioration of the industry that existed there prior to the breakup of Yugoslavia. The population in these traditionally underdeveloped regions is getting older and older, and the average household is small, with a small amount of land that they cultivate. The data say that only 20% of these households living in rural areas are producing for the market. So, the majority are subsistence farming and cannot survive on these small plots of land.
We also have something called polutan, which is a phrase describing people living in between the countryside and cities. They are not a proper working class that lives in an urban area and working full-time in factories. Rather, they are living in rural areas, cultivating land and at the same time working in factories. This has been a characteristic here even before the Second World War. This rural poverty is strongly entrenched and has strong historical roots in various agricultural and regional development policies. The position of this rural poor is getting worse and worse. And in the last couple of years there was a rise in the unemployment level. People were losing jobs, particularly those with low qualifications and those working in the sector of vulnerable employment such as part-time employees and self-employed persons. So the data show that in the last couple of years there was a decrease in economic activity, an increase in the level of poverty, and rising unemployment. On the other hand, to what extent we can really attribute this to the government or to global trends, I’m not sure whether anybody can truly say.
Some countries, like Poland, were in a better economic position to withstand the globe economic downturn.
The type of growth that we had here in the last decade did not provide a solid basis for the country to survive the crisis. Two-thirds of the annual GDP growth that we had here was attributed to the parts of the economy that do not produce for export: transport, telecommunications, construction. We actually failed to develop the part of the economy that could bring in money. Like elsewhere, we had a crisis in the construction business. There was also a crisis in the financial sector, though, as far as I understand it, it’s a different crisis than in the West. We had here a crash of big banks. Reading the newspapers you get the impression that these were state-owned banks. Actually, the state has 20% of the shares, and they were 80% privately owned. The banks crashed due to the insolvent loans that they issued. They say it’s roughly 300 million Euros in losses. That’s a lot of money for a small country like this, and it can really shake the banking sector. In that sense, sometimes I think we’re not that bad off, having in mind how vulnerable we are. But we might get into the Greek kind of situation, you never know.
How would you evaluate the actual functioning of social services for the elderly, the unemployed, people who have recently become sick?
The part of the system that deals with social services — and various benefits like social assistance, the pension system, and so on — is still functioning. In terms of social assistance, we’re strongly influenced by World Bank policy. We have a very tight budget for social assistance. It’s well targeted, so money doesn’t go to those who are not poor. And it’s not generous in terms of coverage. Good targeting, low coverage. The average amount of money that they get is really insufficient for anything. The question is, what’s the purpose of receiving social assistance? I don’t really think, in a country like Serbia, that you can have a social assistance scheme that can provide you with enough money to live the whole month.
In terms of services, over the last ten years the government has invested a lot into the development of welfare services for various groups, like the elderly, children, persons with disabilities, persons with learning difficulties, and so on. The coverage of these services depends on the level of socioeconomic development in the region. Those who live in better-off regions have more services; those who live in underdeveloped regions have underdeveloped services. In the last couple of years the government has invested more money in the underdeveloped areas to try to achieve some balance. These services are underdeveloped compared with, for instance, the United Kingdom, which has a long tradition of community-based services with large charities. On the other hand, we have a quite solid system of public institutions providing these services that exist in each municipality. They provide some sort of safety net that enables certain groups to survive. But some people are systematically left out: primarily Roma and people with rural areas. I don’t really know about healthcare, but the average life expectancy in Serbia is on the level that was achieved in Greece 40 years ago and in Norway 50 years ago.
Has it declined from the levels achieved under Yugoslavia?
It declined in the 1990s, but it’s now back, I think, to the level of that was achieved in former Yugoslavia. The decline was due to the deterioration of the healthcare system, which happened everywhere in Eastern Europe. But it’s also the fact of the wars here. You didn’t have 90-year-olds going to combat, but younger ones.
In addition to the racism directed toward Roma, I’ve heard people complain that the Roma have been receiving so much money from governments and the EU and civic organizations. Are those perceptions popular in Serbia too?
Occasionally you can hear comments of this sort, but I don’t think that’s a general impression. In general there is a noticeable social distance towards Roma, though they’re not at the very top of the list. From the point of view of average Serbs, the Albanians are the least desired neighbors, friends, bosses, wives, husbands, and so on. The Roma population now has an NGO elite like everybody else in Eastern Europe: this is good for the elite but not for their constituency. The West has learned something from the experience of post-Second World War Europe, and that’s that you don’t need to invest billions of dollars in changing the society, you just invest in the elite and then the elite will do what needs to be done. This has not happened really with the Roma population.
My experiences with Roma NGOs dates from the time when I worked with the government and I was the head of a rather large social innovation fund, which invested a large sum of money in various welfare initiatives. We also had Roma programs. The Roma groups were insufficiently qualified, not always capable of cooperating with external partners, very often incapable of creating networks and coalitions. So it was always a one-man-show sort of approach.
This was also the case, for instance, with the movement of persons with disabilities, but they managed to change this approach. I’m not sure why it didn’t take place with the Roma population. Here, for instance, the elites of the NGOs for persons with disabilities at a certain point were stuck on this idea to develop a network of personal assistants. This personal service for a person with disability would be available I don’t know how many hours a day and paid for by the government out of the state budget, which is absolutely unrealistic. From the purely financial point of view, this was simply too expensive. I participated in a few dozen discussions of this sort, and they have managed to move their movement on this issue. Now the data show that local welfare services for persons with disabilities are well developed, managed by their own NGOs, and exist throughout the country. It’s not as good as they would want, of course, but it’s far better than, for instance, services for Roma, for some groups of children, and so on.
This hasn’t taken place with Roma NGOs and groups. I don’t know why. I think it’s the issue of cultural capital and social capital as well. In the government administration, I never really witnessed a reluctance to deal with Roma issues much less a desire to stop programs that target Roma or to redirect resources to other problems. That’s my experience. On the other hand, the quality of applications and programs that competed for the government funding was never good enough. I’m not sure why they were not able to use all the resources that were available to improve their capacities. On the other hand, they were unlucky in the sense that there were divided responsibilities within the government. Probably they had the experience of going to the minister for human and minority rights and getting redirected to the minister of social affairs and then to the minister of employment. Each of those ministries has its own programs: employment programs for Roma people, assistance to facilitate entrance into the healthcare system, educational teaching assistants in the elementary schools, conditional cash transfers so that you need to send your kids to school if you want to get social assistance. But these programs were never really linked. As a result of that, as well as discrimination from the majority population, most Roma live in their own ghettos.
A few years ago, our mayor here in Belgrade initiated a program to reconstruct the main highway bridge in the downtown. Since we have only a few bridges, this one is really important for traffic. There was a huge, illegal Roma settlement beneath the bridge, living without electricity, without sewers. The mayor was under pressure from the international community to relocate this settlement and provide them with houses. He said, “We don’t have the resources for that.” After months and months of political negotiations, he uprooted them within a few days and provided them with some container housing. Research shows that one of the main reasons why he is so popular in Belgrade is that he managed to do it quickly, and to get them out of sight. They are now 25-30 kilometers from downtown in some suburb, and they are no longer involved in the recycling business. Roma would go and pick up things from the trashcans, because there was no organized recycling here. Now the city has put out these big underground containers where you put your trash and it can’t be accessed.
The Roma are not a big issue anymore. They are not on the top of the agenda.
That was my sense as well. Although I did see that there is a reality show here that features celebrities who, in this one case, went to live with a Roma family. Some of the responses were, “Why are you wasting your time working with Roma people?” But some people apparently said that they were surprised to see that Roma people were not that different from other people. Have you seen this show?
I’m not really a fan of reality shows. But a show where these guys go to live with Roma people might make sense. I see that my students, especially those living in areas without direct contact with the Roma population, have a sense that they are “dirty” and not deserving any support.
When you talked about social inclusion, you didn’t mention refugee populations or internally displaced. I’ve been told that the absolute numbers have declined considerably, with people being integrated into communities. I’m curious if that’s true and also whether the refugee community has had a political impact in the sense of their organizing as a community with common needs or common vision.
Their number has decreased. I think it’s now 70,000 registered refugees coming from Bosnia and Croatia, but I’m not really sure. When it comes to IDPs, I’m not sure about the numbers. They were very visible in the 1990s. The data then showed that they were more supportive of the right-wing parties, the Radicals, and the Socialists. The number of respondents among those refugee populations that would vote for those parties was higher than the overall population. There was, as always, this rumor that they were taking over our jobs, taking our money, and stuff like that. But they were not so numerous to be a challenge to ordinary social and economic life. They might have had some strongholds, some places where their networks were strong, but that was the case with other newcomers too.
There were urban legends—as you would say in your country—about people from Southwest Serbia, from Montenegro, the Bosnian lobby, the Herzegovina lobby. People tend to stick together, right? When they lack other social resources, they rely on their own networks: friends, neighbors, and relatives. But I think it’s really just the impression of the dissatisfied percent of the majority population. Recently, there was a clash in the Democratic Party, between the former president Boris Tadic and the mayor of Belgrade Dragan Djilas. Both of them have parents of Montenegrin origin, so all of a sudden you have, in these yellow papers, headlines like, “The Montenegrin Lobby Is Again Shaking Belgrade” and stuff like that. But I’m not so familiar with the situation with the IDPs and refugees at this particular moment, so this is all that I can say.
I’m curious whether, when you got together with various Serbian civil society activists on your recent trip to Washington, this experience of pooling your knowledge was useful?
This was a completely new environment for me. I’d never worked with these guys before. I deliberately tend to avoid all USAID projects—because I thought that the things they do here are not the type of things I want to do—until this opportunity appeared. But for me that was a refreshing experience, because I’ve changed my professional environment radically. I haven’t been an activist for 15 years. I noticed that we have different perspectives. The others on the delegation tend to be more critical toward the situation here, more anti-government. I think I’m more moderate because I’ve worked for the government, and I don’t think it’s all black and white. When you’re in government, you also meet many people who want to do the work they’re supposed to do, but they meet obstacles. And the obstacles are not always political. It’s not that somebody wants to block you, but things are complicated and difficult, and you can’t change them so easily. If it were easy, we would probably be Switzerland at this point.
And still complaining!
Yes, still complaining! But that’s also the fault of the social scientists. We always tend to look for big processes and long-lasting structures and processes, and tend to neglect the mundane issues of day-to-day politics. My work has been more focused on research and analysis of what government does, and these products don’t seem to reach many people. The academic community is small, and it’s divided into various fields. People are focused on what they work on, and you don’t have a huge audience. The international audience is not interested in these issues. They have their own agendas about us, so we are on multiple peripheries. And if we want to present what we do to the international scientific community, then we do it as they say and on the issues they identify as important.
Seeing CRTA – the Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability – with their super famous site and public actions, TV interviews in front of the national assembly, that was a refreshing experience. We’ve agreed that we will try to connect these two approaches. We will stick here to the analysis, data collection, and writing. We will not go into activism. We have people here who are natural-born activists, but we tend to hide them from other groups. We’ll probably end up with some sort of engagement around the accountability of the government—but the executive branch. When we say here “the government,” we mean the executive branch. There has been some opening up of the legislative process, in terms of making the process visible to the public and reestablishing some of the channels for public participation that existed before, like public consultation, roundtables, and so on. They existed here, but they were rarely used to substantially influence public policies and legislation.
Can you give me an example of one of these roundtable processes?
When the new law on social interaction was drafted, I knew each member of the group that prepared the law. Some of them had even sat in my office when I was their boss. And yet I was not able to get the draft law.
I would go from one person to another, and each of them would say, “I know, I completely agree. It’s not logical, but I cannot give you the draft law.”
I would ask, “Why?”
“Because we have agreed, and we have a political order from the ministry that we wouldn’t release the unfinished version.”
I said, “But it’s not your law, it’s the public’s law.”
They said, “Yes, we know that.”
I got the draft version only when it was almost done. My point is, when get a draft law, it’s done, the basic things are decided. You can make amendments and slightly change the law. But you cannot change the crucial issues. For instance, here the crucial issues regarded the procurement of services, the role of the public and private sector, and so on. In some cases, you did have public discussions. The executive branch has a legal obligation to organize public discussions. There is a 15-day time period to make the law available to everyone who wants to read it, and then to organize roundtables and public discussions where the relevant stakeholders are invited. That’s always a field of manipulation: whom do you decide is relevant, whom will you invite? Then the government is obliged to take into consideration what they have heard. They are not obliged, of course, to incorporate the comments and the ideas, but this is also a way for them to measure the level of resistance and the approval for the measures they have taken, and also to check whether it’s feasible.
On the other hand, when they prepare a draft law the government also needs to provide a regulatory impact assessment where they answer, I think, 10 questions. The first question is, “Do you need the regulation or can you solve the issue without regulation?” and the last question is an estimate of the financial costs of the law. They rarely do this in the proper way so as to provide a full, in-depth analysis. They say simply, for instance, “Yes, we need a law.” Will it have financial implications? “No!” And that’s it. So, some of these processes need to be improved.
We’re not idealistic in thinking that the public needs to influence all the laws. They have voted. But on the other hand, the public and the various groups need to be given an opportunity at least to discuss it. They cannot decide, because they don’t have the authority or the responsibility, of course. But public discussions and the mere exchange of ideas might lead government to conclude that it could be done better. So that’s how roundtables and public discussions operate, which is probably similar to the system that you or other European countries have.
We have congressional hearings that serve this roundtable function, but we have the same problems concerning who gets invited to testify in hearings. And it’s very partisan, of course, because it all depends on which party is in power and who’s in control at the particular period.
We need to fight for the opportunity to ask questions. We had changes in fiscal legislation here. One of the changes in taxation law was related to something we call an excise, which is sort of a parafiscal burden. There’s a certain amount of money you pay for a single pack of cigarettes or a single pack of candies that you sell. These taxes increased 20 percent for cigarettes and 40 percent for candies. Given the need to collect money for the budget, why should the price of candies increase more than cigarettes or alcoholic beverages? This is the kind of question we need to ask. It’s no good if we don’t have the opportunity. We need to fight for the opportunity.
When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed in Serbia since then, how would you evaluate that on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 being most satisfied?
Same period of time, same scale, but your own personal life.
In terms of my personal life, I was very young in 1989. So my personal satisfaction is actually pretty normal for somebody who made the transition from being 15 to being 38. So I’m pretty much satisfied, it would probably be close to 10.
Finally, looking into the near future, when you think about where Serbia will be in the next couple of years, how do you evaluate the prospects? Again, on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being most pessimistic and 10 being most optimistic.
I would stick to 5. People usually stick to middle range answers when they don’t know the answer. I can’t really assess, evaluate, or imagine what will happen in the next 5 years. Most probably we won’t have any huge differences in terms of economic development. In terms of the political situation, it will probably be the same issues as now or as 5 years ago.
Belgrade, October 9, 2012
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