Companies connected to the Serbian justice minister’s husband, who is also the brother of a leading health official, won 27 public contracts worth around 26.8 million euros, including a three million euro bid for a healthcare information system, BIRN can reveal.
By Ivan Angelovski, Marija Ristic, Slobodan Georgiev, Aleksandar Djordjevic and Dzana Brkanic
Before the coronavirus pandemic struck Serbia in early March, Dr. Darija Kisic Tepavcevic was mostly known in medical circles as a competent epidemiologist who rose to the level of deputy director of the Institute of Public Health.
But in recent weeks, she has become a familiar face in households across the country as one of the key members of the crisis staff in charge of fighting COVID-19.
Dr. Kisic Tepacevic quickly got media attention and won the affection of many people because she spoke about the pandemic clearly and calmly, with integrity as a medical professor.
Tabloids rushed to run stories about her looks, private life, her students and colleagues. Media then revealed that the Sarajevo-born doctor has a younger brother, successful businessman Bojan Kisic, who is married to Serbian Justice Minister Nela Kuburovic, a member of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party.
Out of the spotlight, companies linked with Bojan Kisic secured lucrative contracts with several state companies and ministries, including a three-million-euro deal to maintain Serbia’s integrated health information system. The software handles the most sensitive private information of the Serbian public health-care system.
BIRN can reveal that since 2013, the NITES companies have been awarded at least 27 public contracts worth around 26.8 million euros in Serbia, either bidding alone or in consortiums.
Just this month, BIRN has found, NITES won three contracts worth 3.2 million euros with the Serbian Ministry of Health, including the maintenance of the health information system.
Darija Kisic Tepavcevic, however, ignored BIRN’s questions about her brother’s involvement in IT deals involving the Serbian public health system, saying that NITES was not involved in creating the country’s current COVID-19 information system linked with her institute.
Justice Minister Nela Kuburovic told BIRN that she “is not linked in any way with the company where Bojan Kisic works, neither [is she] in a position to influence the business of a multinational company that operates around the world.”
According to her, the Serbian government has procedures in place that could track and prevent corruption.
Government-linked allies and partners win tenders
Belgrade-based NITES is part of the NITES Group, a family of companies owned by Miodrag Skrbic. Kisic serves as chief executive officer of their Czech-based NITES A.S., which won several public tenders together with the group’s Serbian branch. The NITES companies operate in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Czech Republic, Montenegro, Russia and Britain as well as in Serbia.
The 27 public contracts won in Serbia were mostly done in consortium with powerful state companies and private enterprises linked with the ruling Serbian Progressive Party. Some of the companies NITES has partnered include state-owned telecommunications company Telekom Srbija, Prointer IT and Asseco SEE.
Asseco SEE is a company whose Serbian country leader is Igor Brnabic, the brother of Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic. In 2017 and 2018, Asseco SEE and NITES collaborated on IT service deals for EPS, the government-owned electricity company and ministry of finance. The contracts are worth almost three million euros.
With Prointer IT, NITES offered IT services to two state electricity companies in 2016 and 2017 for the price of 3.1 million euros. As BIRN previously revealed, Prointer IT provided the ruling Serbian Progressive Party with the infrastructure for election campaign phone calls to voters.
In April this year, as a member of the consortium with Telekom Srbija, NITES won three contracts from the Serbian Ministry of Health. The three contracts are worth 3.2 million euros and involve work on some of the key medical software in the country, including maintenance of the national platform for prevention and diagnostic, maintenance of the country’s integrated health information system and developing the software for the electronic issue of death certificates.
In total, since 2016, consortiums involving NITES won 12 contracts from the Ministry of Health, worth around 14 million euros.
Besides the state’s electricity company, the health and finance ministry, other clients of NITES in Serbia are the city of Valjevo, the city of Belgrade and Public Water Management Company Vode Vojvodine, a state-owned company.
Political connections and contracts in Bosnia
NITES has not only secured lucrative state contracts in Serbia, but also in neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina. According to BIRN’s investigation, from 2017 to 2020, the company won tenders worth 1.5 million euros, mostly for IT services. Its Bosnian affiliate is also no stranger to criticism for its relationships with senior politicians.
According to the media reports, the former co-owner of the Czech-based NITES company, Zoran Korac, was an adviser to Milorad Dodik, the former president of Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity Republika Srpska who is now the Serb member of the country’s tripartite state presidency.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, according to BIRN sources, NITES also owned 40 per cent of the company Mühlbauer together with a German firm. In 2012, Mühlbauer signed a contract with the Agency for Identification Documents, records and data exchange, IDDEEA, without a tender bid, for a sum of 50 million euros.
As a result, IDDEEA’s director Sinisa Macan was arrested. At the time when the contract between Mühlbauer and IDDEEA was signed, the director of Mülhbauer was Danilo Petrovic, son-in-law of Nebojsa Radmanovic, a former Serb member of the country’s tripartite state presidency and a member of Dodik’s Alliance of Independent Social Democrats party.
Petrovic left the company soon after the contract was signed.
A man who had a crucial role in negotiating the deal, according to an official representative of Mühlbauer who spoke to BIRN, was Miodrag Skrbic, owner of NITES. Skrbic did not respond to a request for an interview with BIRN.
According to Mühlbauer, NITES sold its share of Mühlbauer in November 2016.
Skrbic, who lives in Prague and owns the NITES group of companies, was born in 1956 in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he first started his private business at the end of the 1980s.
When the war broke out in the former Yugoslavia, Skrbic moved to Germany and then in 1993 to the Czech Republic, taking his IT businesses with him. During the 1990s, Skrbic founded another company, STROM Telecom.
According to an interview that Skrbic gave to Serbian business website E-kapija in March this year, STROM expanded rapidly in the former Soviet Union, Central Europe, Germany and Uganda.
In the years that followed, “the company reached thousands of employees in several countries and received revenues of hundreds of millions of euros”, Skrbic said.
Skrbic then decided to sell it, and in the period from 2007 to 2011, he set up a network of firms under the name of NITES, which he owns to this day.
NITES companies are registered in Prague, Banja Luka, Belgrade, Podgorica, Moscow and London, and offer telecommunication services and other digital solutions for private and state companies.
The former state auditor who was working on the Bosnian case at the time, Dzevad Nekic, told BIRN that there had been enough evidence for a prosecution over the contract between Mühlbauer and IDDEEA.
“We had enough documents,” said Nekic, who is now the head of the audit office in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Federation entity.
But after investigating for almost six years, the Bosnian prosecution closed the case without bringing any charges.
“I remember saying back then, it’s no wonder that people say that ‘the little fish get caught while the big ones get away’,” Nekic said. “If, with all the documentation, nothing could be done, then it’s doubtful if anything can ever be done.”