The year saw the Democrats thrown out of office, continued talks with Kosovo, some progress on the EU and a tougher stance on crime.
By Bojana Barlovac
The year did not start promisingly for Serbia as the State Audit Institution, DRI, released an alarming report in January on misuse of public money.
The report found that state institutions misspent at least €800 million, over 10 per cent of the 2010 budget, mainly through violations of procurement laws.
The report was based on data inspected at 47 local governments, public companies and government departments in 2011 concerning spending in 2010.
No one then imagined that some of the main suspects culprits would one day face a court of law. The then ruling Democrats appeared to ignore the report’s findings, as a result of which it seemed to slip into oblivion.
However, Serbia’s biggest opposition party, the Serbian Progressive Party, started building its election campaign in March based on the report, insisting on the need to do more to tackle widespread corruption.
The corruption issue has often been cited in EU reports as one of the biggest problems in the Balkan country.
Many voters heeded the message, and Serbs duly punished the Democratic Party in the May 6 general, presidential and local elections, blaming it for mismanagement, corruption and falling living standards.
As ever in Serbia, weeks of horse-trading followed the vote until Ivica Dacic, leader of the Socialist-led coalition and once the right-hand man of the late Slobodan Milosevic, abandoned his former Democrat allies and aligned with the Progressives.
Dacic duly became Prime Minister while Tomislav Nikolic of the Progressives was elected President of Serbia, beating the incumbent Democrat, Boris Tadic, in a run-off on May 20.
The new government, comprising the Progressives, the Socialists and the United Regions of Serbia, finally emerged in July, marking a real turning point on the political scene with the downfall of once all-powerful Democrats.
Belgrade Mayor Dragan Djilas was the only Democrat to do well in the local elections, thus retaining power in the capital.
Meanwhile Serbia’s new ruling coalition seized power in many other towns that were still under the Democrats.
Reeling from these defeats, the Democrats showed few signs of coming together as an effective opposition party.
After the May general elections, the party officials bickered and blamed each other for the party’s defeats and loss of power.
Tadic was widely blamed for the defeats and for having concentrated too much power in his hands. The crisis inside the party ended on November 25, when Djilas replaced him as the new leader, pledging to reform the party.
Continuity on Kosovo and EU:
The new government continued on the same course as the former one on two main issues, Kosovo and EU integration.
Serbia obtained EU candidate status under the Democrats in March and hoped to get a start date for accession talks by the end of 2012.
Normalization of relations with Kosovo, which declared independence in February 2008, is the key precondition for Serbia’s further progress on the EU path.
Determined to get a start date set for Serbia, Dacic made history by agreeing to meeting his Kosovo counterpart, Hashim Thaci, in Brussels on October 19. This took place in spite of the fact that Serbia still has an arrest warrant out for the Kosovo leader.
The leaders met twice more, resulting in an agreement to implement an earlier deal on the Kosovo-Serbia border and appoint liaison officers from both sides. Brussels hailed the deal but it was not enough to win Serbia a green light to start EU accession talks.
“The Council will examine a possible decision to open accession negotiations with Serbia on the basis of a report to be presented in spring 2013,” EU foreign ministers concluded on December 11.
Support for the European project has meanwhile fallen in Serbia. A recent survey showed backing for EU membership had dropped below the level of 50 per cent.
If a referendum on an EU membership bid was held now, 49 per cent of Serbs who took part in the survey would say «yes», 25 per cent would say «no», 19 per cent would not vote, and 8 per cent were not sure what their answer would be. Support for the EU project was over 60 per cent earlier. The highest percentage was recorded in December 2003, when it was 73 per cent.
War on crime:
The pre-election promise of the Progressives to root out corruption soon shifted from words to acts.
After Nikolic replaced Tadic as President of Serbia, Nikolic resigned as head of the Progressive Party, allowing Aleksandar Vucic to become the head.
Vucic also took the positions of first Deputy Prime Minister, Defence Minister and national coordinator of the fight against corruption.
In August, he was also appointed secretary of the Council for National Security, giving him oversight over all the security services, besides which he heads the Council’s executive body, tasked with rooting out corruption and organised crime.
In an open letter in October, Vucic said there would be no “untouchables” in Serbia, and he would not relax the fight against corruption even if it meant new elections.
The first big fish caught in the net was a Democrat, Oliver Dulic, former Minister for Environment and Spatial Planning. He was detained in October on suspicion of having illegally issued permits for the mounting of optic cables on roads.
The next catch was another Democrat, the former Agriculture Minister Sasa Dragin. He was detained in November on suspicion of abused his office, involving the illegal sale of mineral fertilizers that resulted in 4.5 million euro worth of damage to the state budget.
The same month, police also arrested a former deputy prime minister and a former director of a state-owned Agrobanka branch office on suspicion of involvement in illicit dealings while granting and using the bank’s assets in the northern town of Subotica.
The last and most spectacular arrest involved the richest man in Serbia, Miroslav Miskovic. owner of Delta Holding.
He was detained on December 11. Police seized him in relation to 24 privatizations that the EU has flagged up as problematic. Investigations into these cases are ongoing.
Wave of price rises:
As Serbian politicians dealt with elections, Kosovo and the EU, living standards continued to decline, forcing the average family to struggle harder to make ends meet.
Under the guise of revising the 2012 budget, the new government in October raised prices on many items, ranging from food to heating.
The price hikes, ranging from 3 to 40 per cent, affected household chemicals, alcohol, processed fruits and vegetables, beverages, canned meat and fish, urban transportation fares, frozen fruits, confectionery, ice cream, clothing, footwear and mobile telephony.
Heating costs went up 18.5 per cent, and diesel fuel by around 3 per cent, liquefied petroleum gas by 20 per cent up and cigarettes by 10-16 per cent.
The average salary in Serbia was already low compared to prices, about €370 a month. The average food basket costs around 55,000 dinars [about €450] for a three-member family per month, statsistics say. Unemployment meanwhile reached 26.2 per cent.