Corruption is second only to poverty, on the list of key problems in the Serbian society.
Over the past few years, corruption consistently progressed on the list of biggest problems in Serbia. It moved up on the scale of biggest problems from seventh place in October 2010 to second in December 2012.
This progress is partially a result of a congruence between priorities of both citizens and the Government.
Before the new Government took office, little optimism about the fight against corruption was visible.
Now an astounding 41 percent of interviewees believe that corruption levels will decrease in the coming year, which is the most optimistic finding in years. It seems the people of Serbia are finding new faith in the recent measures in the country.
What prompted this new-found faith and what generated this political will?
Citizens have become increasingly aware of the severity of corruption and the international community got together and sent strong and coherent messages to the new Government.
The international community in Belgrade, gathered in the Informal Donor Sub-Group on Anti-corruption, co-chaired by the European Union (EU) and UNDP, and sent a Joint Message to the new Government strongly urging it to exhibit “great will, conviction, commitment and leadership in the fight against corruption”.
Acting in response to both of these matters, the new Government responded commendably by:
- Adopting a zero-tolerance policy toward corruption in August 2012, and
- Opening investigations into the most visible allegations of corruption.
High-profile arrests followed and media speculate that even more are in store.
The will to implement changes in the highest echelons of the new Government and the improvement of criminal legislation has led to a perfect storm of anti-corruption efforts.
By removing undue influence over the police and prosecutors, they were finally able to apply the law and investigate and prosecute offenders.
The citizens of Serbia responded with enthusiasm, which further convinced the politicians that they are on the right track.
For several years, Serbia was stagnating on the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index. Only a slight improvement was registered in 2012 – from 86th to 80th place.
The latest UNDP – CeSID survey (in Serbian), provides a real boost and shows obvious support which citizens afford to the new Government.
The survey noted the least encounters with corruption among citizens of Serbia in the last three years. The rise of awareness resulted in a decline in direct and indirect encounters with corruption in the past several months.
Granted, eight percent of the population experiencing direct contact with corruption is still high. One in five (20 percent) of the respondents experiencing corruption indirectly (through word from family, friends or neighbors) is very high.
This is, however, a considerable drop and a clear downward trend compared to previous surveys.
In contrast to the previous research cycle, the percentage of participants directly encountering corruption fell by six percent, while those experiencing it indirectly fell by 15 percent. Those previously inclined to ask for a bribe are now wary of doing so.
Although the results represent an optimistic outlook, appropriate follow through is needed. A lot of work remains to be done with citizens themselves. Citizens openly admit that, to a large extent, they themselves represent the group that offers bribes in order to solve problems or accomplish goals and expedite procedures.
Applying the zero-tolerance principle across the board and ensuring its continued enforcement will continue to improve the situation in Serbia with the hopes of ultimately stamping out corruption completely.
The fight against corruption is also one of the litmus tests in the strength of country’s institutions. Citizens perceive, the police and the Government as key anticorruption institutions.
However, two institutions have gained considerably more trust from the citizens as leaders in the anticorruption efforts, compared to the previous research cycle: the Anti-Corruption Agency and judiciary, both growing by 13 percent.
The Serbian Anti-Corruption Agency is becoming increasingly more recognisable with each passing cycle. An entire 77 percent of Serbian citizens currently claim to be familiar with its work. This is the best registered result since the Agency’s creation.
What’s needed now: Making good on citizen trust
People want to believe that elected officials and the institutions that supervise them are serious about fighting corruption.
These early successes afforded much benefit of doubt to politicians and they now have the responsibility to capitalize on this trust.
Confidence in the Government is growing. People want to see prosecutions, but also convictions.
One could argue that citizens gave credit to the new Government which, for the time being, is using it well. But if genuine reforms which citizens expect do not follow, if corruption is not turned from prevalence to incidents, citizens would quickly raise the interest rate of this credit, pushing the Government into default.
Since the road to curbing corruption has already been paved, all that the Serbian Government needs to do is walk the path.
Then this credit will turn into high dividends and Serbia will be able to move forward in reform and EU integration: a goal shared by all in Serbia.