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President Nikolic only complained about Serbia’s out-of-control security services after they’d extended their surveillance activities to include him as well.
“We have fallen into a ‘snake’s nest’ here, among people who use high positions to dominate lives… and who have dared to wiretap myself primarily, and then Aleksandar Vucic as well.
“This will have to be investigated fully. You cannot live like this in Serbia.”
So said the President of Serbia, Tomislav Nikolic, on October 31, 2012, after it was revealed that police was phone tapping him and Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic.
His words confirm that during its first months, Serbia’s new government, headed by the Serbian Progressive Party, the Socialist Party and the United Regions of Serbia, hardly deserves a pass grade when it comes to dealing with the security services.
Previously achieved levels of democratic procedures and practices have been jeopardized, not only by the Law on National Bank of Serbia, which attracted the hostile attention of the international community, but also by the way in which the chief of the Security Information Agency was removed and also by amendments to the Law on Foundations of Security Agencies.
The alarming situation in the security sector in Serbia, caused primarily by inadmissible staffing decisions and loopholes in democratic oversight, has reached a pinnacle in the latest Watergate-style affair.
Media and expert discussions about the fact that the Department for Criminal Investigations of the Interior Ministry unconstitutionally ordered surveillance of the conversations records of Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic and President Nikolic have unfortunately focused more on who did what on whose behalf than on the essence of the problem. This is the unconstitutionality of such acts and the lack of democratic oversight over the security sector.
Both of these causes are well aligned with a dangerous tendency towards establishing party political control over parts of the security apparatus, making its professional work increasingly difficult.
The fact that parts of the Serbian Interior Ministry acted unconstitutionally, was unfortunately fully marginalized by the objects of surveillance themselves, namely Vucic and Nikolic.
Unlike them, the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection, Rodoljub Sabic, and the Ombudsman, Sasa Jankovic, have pointed again to the essence of the problem.
The 14 measures that the institutions headed by these two men have proposed in order to improve the situation in the security sector ought to obtain the support of all democratic and pro-European forces in Serbia.
But President Nikolic gave a public comment on the endemic surveillance and eavesdropping in Serbia only once the uncontrolled security sector had dared to order surveillance of him as well - alongside Vucic, Serbia’s Defence Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinator of all Security Services.
Recently it was revealed that in Serbia, one way or another, the private communications of around 400,000 citizens are under surveillance of the Serbian security aparatus , of which “only” 15,000 are done legally.
The number of “only 15,000” is also questionable in the light of the recent ruling by the Constitutional Court concerning the legality of certain provisions of the Law on the Foundations of the Military Security Agency and the Military Intelligence Agency.
These envisage the Agency Director rather than a court of law having the right to authorize surveillance of people’s communications.
The Law on Criminal Procedure is also incongruous with Serbia’s Constitution, Article 41 of which says that only a court may permit any deviation from constitutional guarantees concerning the secrecy of citizens’ communications.
The Progressive Party proudly stresses the “loyalty” of the newly appointed leadership of BIA, the work of which is coordinated by the Defence Minister, apparently confirming its intention of limiting its autonomy and establishing full party rather than democratic control over its work.
The fact that Prime and Interior Minister Ivica Dacic maintains that this scandal has nothing to do with him, is a bad sign for good governance.
It is obvious that a series of inadmissible events in and around the Interior Ministry, which occurred from Vranje to Kragujevac to Belgrade, as well as internal protests and the refusal of a group of Interior Ministry members to take orders, also have “nothing to do“ with the minister’s line of work .
Even before the Serbian Watergate, ample evidence existed that the situation in the security sector was worrying, both in terms of organization and in terms of staffing.
If we pay attention to Kosovo-related biographies of the Army Chief of Staff and chief of the Military Security Agency, we may rightly suspect that in the background of the affair is an attempt to discredit Serbia’s current leadership ahead of its stated intention of making positive steps in the EU-led dialogue with Kosovo.
However, the West seems to have no comprehensive approach towards, or interest in, the state of affairs inside Serbia’s security sector, as long as it gets optimistic statements from the authorities about continued dialogue with Pristina.
Although even President Nikolic admits the existence of “a snake’s nest,“ the Western community, in its policies towards Serbia, remains “Kosovo-centric”, without offering adequate instruments, like strong demand and support for comprehensive security sector reform, to finally strike the “snake’s nest“ directly.
In two high-profile war crimes trials currently ongoing in Pristina, a series of witnesses have retracted previous statements alleging abuse at Kosovo Liberation Army detention centres.