Do you know a state that has about 3.5 million inhabitants, is close to the European Union, came out with deep wounds after a 1992 war on territorial integrity, and that after more than a quarter of a century is still a state in transition, poor, and with high unemployment? A state crushed by divisions induced by politicians, where corruption controls all aspects of power and impunity is the law for dignitaries caught red handed stealing public money? Do you know a state where corrupt officials can flee abroad due to multiple passports and will no longer return to be brought to justice?
Do you think all this is about the Republic of Moldova? Yes, it is, but it is also about Bosnia and Herzegovina. A trip to the heart of the Balkans will help us analyze calmly, as outsiders, these similar problems in a different state so that in the end we can understand how two countries from different corners of the European Union both aiming to become part of the Union are managing issues in the justice sector, transparency in the use of public money, and fighting corruption.
Again, we chose to talk about the Republic of Moldova and Bosnia and Herzegovina because theyshare similar experiences on their roads to national emancipation. Situated at the intersection of important trade routes, Moldova’s territory has been caught between great powers’ interests, just like Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Both countries were annexed to great empires, experienced occupation, and were then transformation into socialist republicsfor more than half a century: Bosnia and Herzegovina was part of the Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia, and the Republic of Moldova was part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. When they declared their independencein the early 1990s, both countries went through internal military conflicts and to this day are still searching for their national identities. Another important milestone in the development of these countries is the aspiration to become part of the European Union. The Republic of Moldova signed an association agreement with the EU in 2014 while Bosnia and Herzegovina did so in 2008 and in 2016 officially applied for EU membership.
Before setting out for Bosnia and Herzegovina, let’s take note of a few of particulars. It’s a multiethnic, decentralized country in southeastern Europe led by three presidents, each representing a different ethnic group, and considered by some to have one of the world’s most complicated governing systems with excessive bureaucracy, politicized justice, and endemic corruption. However, in international rankings Bosnia and Herzegovina is nearly 30 positions higher than the Republic of Moldova.
Musician in the historical center of Sarajevo plays a traditional Bosnian song.
Like the Republic of Moldova, Bosnia and Herzegovina has a population of only 3.5 million people but has been territorially divided along ethnic criteria since 1995 and is represented politically and administratively based on the same ethnic criteria.
The state is composed of three parts: The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska are two entities with their own parliaments and governments, and the Brčko District is an autonomous and neutral administrative unit directly under the authority of the state. Republika Srpska is largely representative of the Serbian population while the Federation, inhabited by Bosniaks and Croats, is divided into ten cantons—six of Bosniaks and four of Croatians.
At the central level there is a Council of Ministers, Parliament with two chambers, and the Presidency which is a collective of three members, each belonging to one of the three constituent peoples (Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats). The Chair of the Presidency rotates among the three members, each of whom is elected for a period of eight months within a four-year term.
Our interlocutors from Bosnia and Herzegovina say that it is very easy to develop and operate obscure businesses within such a decentralized, bureaucratic system in which politics contributes to the division of citizens.
“I don’t think the system in Bosnia and Herzegovina is so complicated. In fact, it is, but which country’s system is not complicated?” queried Ivana Marić, a political analyst and a critical voice on governance with whom I spoke in Sarajevo. She says that in fact, the origin of all the problems in the state is not the system but is rather corruption and politicians with integrity problems.
“They (the politicians) made people hate each other more than they hated each other right after the war, after they had shot each other. We now hate each other more than we did 20 years ago because they (the politicians) really poisoned us. They created this atmosphere of fear and hatred because this is the easiest way for them to win elections. And there is one thing that they are interested in: the opportunity to steal more money,” she added.
On the other hand, the Republic of Moldova is a parliamentary republic, with a single president, a single parliamentary chamber and a central government, but with just as much bureaucracy and as many problems. The country has 400 kilometers of uncontrolled border and an autonomousentity within its territory.
February 2019. Chisinau.
With few natural energy resources and dependency on Russian gas, an economy based largely on agriculture and remittances from Moldovans working in Europe, Russia, and other former Soviet countries, the Republic of Moldova has acquired the status of the poorest state in Europe and one of the most corrupt. Moldova gained notoriety when a billion USD, 12 percent of the country’s GDP, was stolen from the country’s banking system. Five years have passed, but the investigation is not yet concluded, and no money has been recovered.
On October 3, 2016, the Government led by Pavel Filip transformed the emergency loans in state debt. Emergency loans were offered by the executive power to 3 banks that were liquidated as a result of the robbery in the banking system.
In fact, corruption in Moldova has gone through several stages in the last decade from being ubiquitous, to “politicizing” the fight against corruption by eliminating political rivals and business competitors to finally capturing the central government. This process was fueled by the sale of parliamentary votes in the previous legislature, the flowering of clientelism, the paralysis of the judicial system due to nepotism, and limitations on access to information by the press.
In order to better understand the state of affairs in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as the situation in the Republic of Moldova, it is sufficient to identify the positions of the two countries in international rankings on perceptions of corruption, the transparency of state institutions, and the independence of the judicial systems.The situation in 2019 regarding the two countries might change but not necessarily for the better.
For more than a year since the general elections in October 2018, there was no functional Council of Ministers in Bosnia and Herzegovina because the three presidents, Milorad Dodik, Sefik Dzaferovic, and Zeljko Komsic and respectively the parties that they represent, could not reach an agreement. The main point in the negotiations for forming a new government was the position of the three decision makers on accession to NATO. The political leaders of the Bosnian and Croatian communities supported accession, but the Serbian member opposed it and insisted on holding a referendum. Finally on November 19, 2019, the three reached a consensus.
Protesters organized and paid by the Democratic Party of Moldova to “defend” state institutions and protest against the Sandu Government. June 2019, Chisinau.
While Bosnia and Herzegovina was without anexecutive council for more than a year, in the last half of 2019, Moldovan politicians declared that the Republic was a captured state and ousted the party that had ruled the country for the previous four years. They then set up an honest, pro-European government only to see it brought down shortly there after due to disagreements over the appointment of the country’s prosecutor general. While the upper echelons of government conduct political negotiations and agree on compromises, ordinary people have to tackle social problems, corruption, selective justice, and unemployment on their own.
October 2019. Sarajevo. Mula Mustafe Bašeskijemm Street located in the old town.
Large-scale corruption is wherever there is money and goods
Leila Bičakčić, director of the Center for Journalistic Investigations in Bosnia and Herzegovina, provides insight into what corruption means in the heart of the Balkans from the point of view of the investigative press which tracks it at all levels.
Leila Bičakčić, director of the Center for Journalistic Investigations in Bosnia and Herzegovina
“When it comes to corruption, there is no segment in Bosnia and Herzegovina that is not affected by this phenomenon. There is corruption when you enroll your child in school, when you go to school, when the police stop you in the street. At every moment, you are exposed to a form of corruption. Unfortunately, it is typical in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in the countries of the former Yugoslavia that are in transition that corruption manifests itself at lower levels. I think other western countries have a tendency to corruption but at higher levels that does not affect the lives of ordinary people that much. Here, it greatly affects daily life in society which gives people the feeling that they are not able to fight corruption, that whatever they do they won’t have enough power, and that the only thing an ordinary citizen can do is to accept corrupt behavior. This is precisely the reason why we feel “chained.”
In most international reports, Bosnia and Herzegovina is a captured country governed by a political mafia because elected representatives are subordinate to the political parties that control life; the flow of money, especially public money; employment (most of the population works in public administration); state contracts; and public procurement. In other words, they control the lives of the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the citizens no longer understand what their democratic powers are in such a system and what can help them get rid of this captured system,” Leila Bičakčić said.
Journalists in Bosnia and Herzegovina work within this system too. They are by no means immune to the problems that the rest of the citizens face. This system also dictates the topics addressed by the investigative press: the issue of politicians’ integrity, the hidden assets of the dignitaries, and the dispersal of public money.
These problems are the same everywhere; the Republic of Moldova is no exception. In both countries, for example, most public money goes for public procurement, and, as Leila Bičakčić rightly points out, it is one of the most profitable ways for government officials to absorb public money from the budget. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the largest contracts with the state relate to investments in infrastructure and the construction of highways whereas in Moldova the bulk of the money is allocated for contracting construction services, including roads, and purchasing pharmaceuticals and medical equipment.
An eloquent example of how bribery circulates and how it affects the lives of citizens is a March 2018 investigation by the Center for Journalistic Investigations in Sarajevo. The authors noted that at least seven companies in Bosnia and Herzegovina donated medical equipment to hospitals and subsequently signed contracts with them for supplies and for maintenance worth hundreds of thousands of euros. The gifts, in fact, constituted their “tickets” for securing contracts of much greater value than the donations. Over a period of eight years, the companies donated laboratory equipment worth 1.1 million euros to seven hospitals and subsequently obtained contracts for the delivery of chemicals and other consumables worth more than 7.5 million euros without having to compete for them.
After donating a quarter of a million marks worth of medical equipment to a local hospital, a company in Bijeljina won a contract to supply chemicals worth almost three times the value of the donation. (Photo: CIN)
Renata Radić-Dragić is one of the journalists who documented hospital contracts with donor companies over a period of five months.
Although officials from the Agency for Public Procurement in Bosnia and Herzegovina stated that bidding procedures based on gifts do not comply with the law, its provisions are vague and most often ignored.
The current government inherited the campaign of the foundation of the former leader of the Democratic Party of Moldova (PDM) along with companies affiliated with the party and those that donated to the PDM.
In Moldova such businesses operate on public money too. In 2018, the government transformed the campaign “A New Life” of the foundation managed by the leader of the then-ruling party into a national project that involves providing boxes of basic necessities for newbornsat birth. In fact, the government took over not only the project but also some of the party’s companies that were already receiving public money. With the change in governmentin June 2019, the project—for which 3.5 million euros had been earmarked—was suspended. In November, however, the pro-European government was dismissed in a censure motion, and the new prime minister said he would resume funding it.
Recently in Moldova, the Black Book of Public Money Waste was issued. The book includes a series of journalistic investigations that show how foreign investments are compromised and how hundreds of thousands of dollars are stolen from the state budget in the fields of justice, education, and infrastructure.
One of the investigations, for example, showed how a company managed by a group of businessmen who had been sued for holding fraudulent auctions and for damages worth tens of millions of lei to the state nevertheless managed to sign a contract for $3 million to rebuild a border crossing point with Ukraine. The journalists established thatthe criminal records ofthe companies participating in the tenders were not requested and that the construction work done was not acceptable as the first problems manifested themselves less than one year after the crossing point was put into operation.
Of course, most of the corruption schemes in boththese poor countries involve working through and securing the agreement of the corrupt politicians who govern them. This explains how despite the modest salaries they receive for the positions they hold, those politicians live in luxury. This also highlights that although both countries have very good laws on transparency in the use of public money and anticorruption strategies that look good on paper, they do not work in practice. However chained they feel, in the end only the citizens can change this state of affairs for they can challenge illegalities by refusing to tolerate corruption at the lowest levels through civic involvement and through voting.
“Politicians have their people in the judiciary”
Another issue common to the Republic of Moldova and Bosnia and Herzegovina is the state of affairs in their judicial systems. In both countries, it can be characterized as “selective justice,” “politicized justice,” and “corrupt magistrates.”
“Justice, like all other aspects of society, is not independent,” Leila Bičakčić, Director of the Center for Journalistic Investigations stated.
Analyst Ivana Marić talked about a well-established network between political entities and judgesthat explains why no state officials — be they in the Presidency, the Council of Ministers, or Parliament — are under investigation or have been prosecuted for corruption:
“They (the politicians) are protected; they have judges they control. We know for whom every head of every judicial institution is “playing.” We do not have any key politicians accused of corruption or of any other illegality because key evidence is always lost in court or witnesses change their statements. The politicians influence that. And I mean, it’s not just about the statements of a single witness. We had a case when more than 80 witnesses changed their depositions. So it is not a coincidence; it is really something prearranged, and it is well known who is behind everything that happens. Therefore, it is indeed impossible to bring them to justice because they have their own contacts and are really present in every part of this state. That is why it is difficult to fight them.”
Moreover, those in critical positions can end up with fabricated criminal cases because in the 20 years since the end of the war, while the country’s population has decreased considerably due to a lack of jobs and low wages, a small group of politicians has increased their assets to millions of euros. Ivana Marić:
“You just have to see their houses, the properties the party family members have.They have retired uncles (and not only) with millions, and there are also children. Their children are always the smart ones, the ones who get the best jobs and so on. Now they fear that they will lose all this. Thus the opposition is not an option for them. That is, being in the opposition is not an option for them; they can either be in government or in prison. For this reason, they’ll keep governing at any price and will do anything to win elections including buying votes.”
The Director of the Center for Journalistic Investigations says that politicians also successfully control the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the self-administrative body of the judicial system that decides prosecutors’ and judges’ access to positions, their promotions, and their penalties including dismissal.
Milan Tegeltija, President of the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors. Photo: radiosarajevo.ba
Recently, Milan Tegeltija, President of the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HCJP) who is the highest court official in Bosnia and Herzegovina, has been implicated in a corruption scandal. He was secretly filmed during discussions with a businessman who claims that he intended, through a mediator, to bribe the official to solve his problems with the law. Milan Tegeltija denied the accusation and said it was an attempt to discredit his image. However, the episode brought hundreds of citizens to the streets demanding his resignation.
“That council (HCJP) consists of law professors, lawyers, and judges, and they should be independent. So, formally, we do not have political appointments, but somehow politics have deeply infiltrated it,” Leila Bičakčić noted.
Officially, the personnel in the justice system are not party members, but their relationship with certain politicians or with certain parties is reflected in the decisions made by the magistrates and by the processes that take place within the system.
In the meantime, the reform of the judiciary that has been underway for more than 20 years and that, among other things, is also an obligation assumed by the government in applying for accession to the European Union, has come to a standstill. The explanation for this by Leila Bičakčić is the following: “As soon as local powers took control of the process, the collapse began and has lasted until today when the bondage and political pressure on justice is really strong and, at the moment, really visible.”
Neither did justice reform in the Republic of Moldova—in which millions of euros were invested—eliminate the influence of the political system. Between 2013 and 2017, for example, over 35 million euros from the state budget were spent to create an “independent, professional and impartial” judicial system “without corruption”; ultimately, however, the reform resulted only in renovated buildings, criminal cases and public tenders won by interested firms, and a controllable and politically influenced judicial system. Expert Nadejda Hriptievschi, Program Director at the Center for Legal Resources of Moldova explained:
“The biggest problem is the quality of the act of justice. Quality standards have not been reached mainly because of the quality of the people in the system. Salaries were increased, the rules for access to positions were changed, but in fact, the rules were bypassed and were not respected. The strategy brought money and technical improvements, but it did not change the people because those who implemented the reform remained the same. The reform also failed because it coincided with political instability. Any reform depends a lot on the quality of the political class.”
Currently, the judicialsystem in Moldova is blocked. It happened after a group of judges organized the Extraordinary General Assembly of Judges and dismissed the current Superior Council of Magistracy, the judicial self-administrative body, claiming that it supported the interests of the former ruling party and helped Vlad Plahotniuc, the former leader of the Democratic Party of Moldova, to “capture the country.” The members of the council do not accept the decisions of the assembly and are on trial for maintaining their positions.
The blockade has thus divided the system into two camps and has generated new polemics in the public space so that the real issues of justice have been relegated to second place.
Viorica Puică, judge
“All the governments that have seized power have tried, in different forms, to control the judiciary and the prosecutor’s office invoking corruption, control by opposition politicians, and illegalities. They believe that through their involvement things can change for the better. This is absolutely wrong. A reformed justice system scares those who ignore the law, who are corrupt, who act illegally and employ corrupt and vulnerable prosecutors and judges in their activities,” Judge Viorica Puică, a critical voice in the system, stated.
In recent years in Moldova there has been more and more news about the detention and prosecution of judges and prosecutors. In most cases, criminal records have been used as pressure instruments on magistrates. Between June and November of 2019when the Sandu Government cameinto power, several investigations were started on theillicit enrichment of important magistrates in the system. Their fate will be pursued with the installation of a new government with the support of the former ruling party.
Justice that “resurrects” the dead
A recent investigation by investigative journalist Azhar Kalamujić revealed a scheme that denotes the interests of the judicial system in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The investigation, , ”Judge Fazlagić disinherited Holocaust Victims,” shows how the houses, apartments, and offices of Jews in Sarajevo who died during the Holocaust were transferred to new owners through illegal rulings issued by Judge Lejla Fazlagi of the Municipal Court of Sarajevo. She got two prime properties for herself in the center of the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The scheme was brought to light by journalist Azhar Kalamujić and was still under investigation in 2016 without any end in sight. According to prosecutors, the magistrate legalized the transfer of 19 properties worth over 4 million euros. She would have been assisted by judges, lawyers, notaries, and court and municipal officials and would have needed the help of an organized criminal group led by Alija Delimustafic, the former Minister of the Interior of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The former minister, who denies the accusations, has been in custody for three years and was released on bail in August 2019.
Between 2011 and 2016, Judge Fazlagić meted out justice to both the dead and the living, disinheriting dozens of real estate owners in Sarajevo by title deeding their houses, apartments, offices, and other unclaimed real estate to others. In her courtroom she conducted fake property litigations sometimes involving plaintiffs and defendants who had already passed away. Regardless of the circumstances, the result of these fabricated proceedings was always the same: The realestate of a deceased person ended up titled in the name of Judge Fazlagić, her relatives, or her friends. Most often, she targeted abandoned properties of the Sarajevo Jews killed in World War II and of other deceased Sarajevo citizens, as well as the assets of some companies.
Azhar Kalamujić: “I looked for dead people. I spent a lot of time in the archives of the Jewish community. They have the family trees without which I would not have been able to get any information. That lasted a long time. I even visited the Jewish cemetery here in Sarajevo, then I searched through the war archives of the Jews killed in the camps in Croatia. Then the investigation was broadened and I searched for information about crimes from several sources. I investigated the judge. On the other hand, who were the people whose real estate was stolen or reassigned? I learned that an employee of Sarajevo City Hall transmitted relevant information to the judge about the location of abandoned houses after which the judge fabricated fictional cases. She also got help from inside the court. Then, these dead people “appeared” and signed an agreement that the house could be titled in someone else’s name. She forged those contracts/documents on an old typewriter so that they looked as if they had been written in the ’50s.”
He eventually managed to find two heirs of some of the properties.
Following the investigation opened in 2016 by prosecutors, Fazlagić resigned and fled to Croatia, a country where she holds citizenship and that does not extradite its citizens. Journalist Kalamujić found the judge. She stated that she was not part of any organized group and that everything had been fabricated.
“This case was fabricated and I will prove it. I will return to Sarajevo. I will become a judge again,” Fazlagić declared.
Investigative press, more efficient than all state institutions
Journalists claim they have had some impact after revealing all these high-level illegalities, but it has not been sufficient.
Leila Bičakčić: “Our voice has had some effect, but it is not enough and not at a satisfactory level. Our efforts should bring about changes at the political level, but unfortunately things move very slowly. We have instead had the least effect there. Regarding procedures, when we show that procedurally something can be changed somewhere inside an institution at the administrative level, changes are happening. As for political decisions that should be balanced, they don’t exist. In fact, when a problem is identified, it must also be solved at a political level.”
She remembered that after an investigation conducted three years earlier, the ruling party changed the prime minister due to public pressure. According to her, the person was changed not so much because of the accusations that came to light but because the party considered at that time that the accused was an outdated politician who served no purpose any longer.
In fact, the Moldovan press has succeeded in bringing down a government. It happened in 2015 after an investigation by Ziarul de Gardă published shortly after the government led by Chiril Gaburici was invested. Journalists revealed more secret details from his CV, including that he had not taken the baccalaureate exam or obtained a diploma in secondary education, so it was not clear how he had been admitted to the higher degree course he claimed he had pursued.
The education scandal quickly turned into a criminal case based on the reasonable suspicion that Gaburici held a false secondary diploma. On June 12, 2015, one day after he testified to prosecutors in the criminal case regarding his studies and three and a half months after the publication of the investigation into his “uncensored” CV, Chiril Gaburici announced his resignation. The case was filed, nevertheless, due to the expiration of the statute of limitationson criminal responsibility. In 2018, Gaburici returned to the government as a minister but refused to answer questions about his studies.
June 12, 2015. Chiril Gaburici, after the press conference in which he announced his resignation from the position of prime minister. Photo: EPA
The fight against corruption is ongoing our interlocutors in Sarajevo tell us, but only very few participants are involved. They include several non-government organizations that monitor corrupt behavior, teams of investigative journalists, and small groups from society and politics that through their actions show how corruption undermines the democratic system.
The Agency for the Prevention of Corruption and Coordination of the Fight against Corruption, the main anticorruption institution in Bosnia and Herzegovina, is not doing its job. One problem is that the very agency authorities who are to investigate high-level corruption and prepare the ground for court cases are appointed by Parliament.
“Agency activity is under the European Union’s permanent control because it is an institution that must exist in the context of EU accession; however, the agency does not have extensive powers or expertise. It is still one of the institutions of the system,” Director Bičakčić explained.
In addition, corrupt politicians use immunity as a protective shield. In Bosnia and Herzegovina immunity is held by both deputies and ministers—practically the whole political system. In addition, the term immunity is not clearly defined by law and offers a wide range of interpretations.
Leila Bičakčić:“Immunity cannot protect anyone from a crime. Unfortunately, immunity is used here as a prohibition against any kind of investigation. This is different inother developed countries where someone who is in public office and does something that is in conflict with the law is not only dismissed but is also punished criminally. There is also public pressure that will not allow such a person to continue to act. All this does not happen here. Unfortunately, we have three major national parties that are basically representatives of three peoples, and they are the ones that block any progress at the moment; they are the ones that are backed up by the whole system.”
Political analyst Ivana Marić believes that in order to change the state of affairs, an independent judicial system and a complete change in the political class are needed. The current political opposition in Bosnia and Herzegovina, according to the analyst, does not offer much hope because it is “a little better” but not “much better.” In this situation, the only hope is the 45 percent of citizens with voting rights who do not participate in elections.
“It has been like that for about 20 years; our only hope is that they will participate in elections if we have good candidates, but we don’t have them,” she pointed out.
In conclusion, we can state that the main burden is on the shoulders of the investigative press.
“We are, in fact, miners. We dig through documents, look for anomalies, obtain information that is kept secret from the public,” concluded journalist Renata Radić-Dragić who showed us hundreds of charts with answers to requests for information of public interest that she had to write individual requests for and wait a long time to receive, sometimes even several months, before she got an answer.
Nevertheless, our colleagues from Bosnia and Herzegovina point out that there have been some changes for the better.
Ivana Marić argues that, for example, after the change of power in Sarajevo Canton in last year’s elections and the installation of a new government that is more transparent and ready to answer any question, citizens have understood what a government normally looks like.“And now the SDA (the Party of Democratic Action, the largest party in Bosnia and Herzegovina) is trying by any means to get rid of this government because we’re getting used to a normal government where we can interview ministers and suggest something and fully inform ourselves about money, so it’s really transparent.”
The Republic of Moldova also experienced a different kind of government for a short time. The Sandu Government made up of the leaders and representatives of the main opposition parties in Moldova came to power in June 2019 through an alliance with the president’s pro-Russian party. The aim was to remove the Democratic Party of Moldovaled by oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc that had ruled the country for four years from power. In a relatively short period of time, the Sandu Government succeeded in restoring the confidence of the country’s foreign partners and in unlocking financial assistance from the European Union.
In mid-November, however, the Sandu Government was dismissed in Parliament by a no-confidence vote, and power was taken by the country’s president, Igor Dodon, who in fact, makes all national decisions through the prime minister and the President of Parliament.
Despite all the problems that “chain” their citizens and retard democratic development in the two countries, the landscape in these different neighbors of the European Union can change. Ordinary people are the ones who have this power. They have demonstrated it through mass protests and also through separate actions. They demonstrated it in Bosnia and Herzegovina when they protested the “captured state”; they demonstrated it in the Republic of Moldova when they fought for a change in power. They have demonstrated it by creating and developing organizations to monitor corruption and the state of democracy andby the existence of strong groups of investigative reporters. Nevertheless, something more is needed: a demand by all of society of their right to live in a state where the laws are good and are respected.