The fall of Slobodan Milosevic on October 5th 2000 was supposed to be watershed moment in Serbia’s democratic transition. Reforms were implemented slowly and not without resistance. Over the last decade, however, the new regime led by the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) has done its best to discontinue and reverse institution-building efforts of its democratic predecessors. The young party rode on the promise of fighting corruption and organized crime, thus gaining unprecedented popular support, but its bombastic measures came short of actual results. Instead, the party has strengthened the grip of state capture.
The term ‘state capture’ refers to a deliberately and gradually developed system of deep and widespread corruption in which institutions are abused, by legal and illegal means, to extract public funds for private gain, to the detriment of citizens’ rights and freedoms and public interest, while the façade of democratic processes is formally retained.[i]
The concept has been endorsed by the European Commission in 2018, referring to the troubles of the Western Balkans region in the European integration process. It is applied in different parts of the world and has evolved in theory and practice since its inception by the World Bank back in 2000. Rather than being captured by businesses to influence public policies and regulations, it is the political elite that instrumentalizes institutions to extract public funds through companies close to it and to remain in power, which is a prerequisite for the process to continue unsanctioned.
State capture in Serbia has been thoroughly documented by civil society in various areas – the security sector, the judiciary, tailor-made legislation, public enterprises, and urban planning, among others.
Why should a captured state fight organized crime?
Both organized crime groups and the fight against them play an important role in state capture. The first link is intuitive. Organized crime provides money and people when institutional means can’t be used. For example, to protect officials from nosey journalists (presidential inauguration 2017) and to silence critics of political leaders during football matches (2021). Along with these cases, which were reveiled by investigative journalists, several other instances can be mentioned, however, without prove. Masked men demolished over (election) night a bohemian quarter in the heart of the capital where luxury apartments were to be built (Savamala 2016) and stirred violence during peaceful anti-government protests (2020), while unidentified groups of men in black were spotted on election sites during the last general and local elections (2020).
On the other hand, the way the fight against organized crime contributes to state capture is counterintuitive, yet important. It is one of the key narratives used to explain the centralization of political power and boost the party leader’s popularity. It is a powerful narrative that mobilizes public attention and shapes the views of the public. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić has declared a ’war on mafia’ on several occasions over the past years, most recently when the new government was formed in autumn 2020.
Although this ’war’ ought to be waged by competent institutions, in the dominant narrative the President is the ’supreme commander’ praised for every alleged success. He is the personalization of the fight against organized crime, he is the one who urges institutions to do their job, who invites suspects to undergo polygraph testing, who condemns or absolves criminals in the media. All of these actions are highly publicised, even though they would be unacceptable in a democratic state with the separation of power and independent judiciary.
The February 2021 arrest of Veljko Belivuk and his group ’Principi’ — and the following proceedings — have turned into a media show with brutal footings being broadcasted during live presidential press conferences. Among other things, the show is used to shock and engage the audience and overshadow a series of incidents and corruption scandals involving public officials.
Moreover, the narrative of fighting organized crime (and counterterrorism) is often instrumentalized to justify the introduction of mass, smart surveillance measures. In the Serbian capital a thousand cameras, many of which have face recognition features, have been bought from China and secretively installed since 2019 to fight organized (and other) crime, as well as to sanction traffic offences. Experts, however, insist there is no evidence that this highly intrusive measure decreases the rate of violent and more serious crime offences. On the other hand, in a captured state that has no tolerance for criticism, the abuse of data is likely and human rights activists fear the consequences for privacy, data protection, and freedom of speech and assembly. Instead of reducing crime, mass surveillance could help to capture society as well.
No tangible results beyond progress reports and media spectacles
According to the recently published Global Organised Crime Index, Serbia has the second highest organized crime rate in Europe. A captured state has no interest in fighting organized crime beyond progress reports and media spectacles, unless certain criminal groups represent a competition. Investigative journalists have found a pattern in the Serbian authorities’ actions, suggesting they took sides in the war between two dominant mafia clans.
Beyond these selective actions, the fight against organized crime in Serbia is rather a mimicry, like many other reforms undertaken to show progress and willingness to join the EU. Along with the fight against corruption, independence of the judiciary and media freedoms, this area remains a slippery slope in the European Commission’s reports on Serbia.
In a captured state façade institutions only mimic democratic processes and principles, while political power to bring about real change remains elsewhere and unwilling to implement substantial reforms. Shadow reports by expert civil society organisations repeatedly conclude that reform activities remain a form without substance and sometimes even that EU-demanded reforms are abused to introduce controversial legal provisions that would, in the given context, tighten the grip of state capture.
Police actions against organized criminal groups often have bombastic names and make all the news as a great success. However, making an arrest is only the beginning of the process, which often ends without convictions because prosecutors are not involved in a timely fashion. In the EU’s terminology, the track record is missing. Institutions ignore important revelations made by investigative journalists, who often find links between alleged criminals and public officials. In the abovementioned Belivuk case, the official investigation omitted the time period crucial to trace down the clan’s ties to state structures.
Twenty one years after October 5th, the symbolism of that date is almost forgotten, and its legacy is distorted. In a captured state, bizarre and shocking phenomena become everyday reality. The President has publicly defended the release from custody of the indicted owner of the largest marijuana plantation in Serbia, who enjoyed support of state security services. The head of the Parliamentary committee for the judiciary – who acts as attorney, journalist, and member of judicial and prosecutorial councils at the same time – broadcasted an interview with said drug lord immediately after his release. On the streets of Belgrade, a convicted war criminal launches a petition to free from prison the man who assassinated Prime Minister Djindjic back in 2003, to mention just a few episodes that occurred during the writing of this commentary.
[i] Petrović, P. Pejić Nikić, J. Security Sector Capture in Serbia – an Early Study, Belgrade Centre for Security Policy, Belgrade, June 2020, https://bezbednost.org/en/publication/security-sector-capture-in-serbia-..., pp. 12-14.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely the author's and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ISPI and BCSP.