The case of Savamala has demonstrated that the supervisory authorities and the citizens themselves have stood up in defence of the rule of law and legal certainty. I believe that, after this event, nobody will dare to stray like this again. This is good news for both domestic and foreign investors, because the Ombudsman Law stipulates that the term “citizens” also includes companies.
When the facilities in Savamala were demolished on the post-election night, somebody was very confident that the violence against the rule of law would go unnoticed. That is not the case today. And Ombudsman Saša Janković says that this the most important lesson the authorities can learn from the event.
You said that the “clandestine incursion” into the Belgrade quarter of Savamala was “the most dangerous affair involving the current government”. Still, over a month after this wanton destruction and repeated civil protests, the government has never felt better and we are no closer to the truth. For whom does this affair pose the biggest danger?
I partially disagree with the premise of your question. We are closer to the truth and the government is surely aware of its mistake, although it shows that with unnecessary anxiety. I think that those who were responsible will suffer the consequences and nobody will ever stray in this way again. The developments in Savamala case are actually an important and positive sign for foreign investors: I believe that this inexcusable nocturnal operation happened because of the desire not to breach the obligations towards a foreign investor. But even more than such “good intention”, foreign investors should be encouraged with the way the supervisory authorities reacted, and more importantly – how citizens stood up to protect the rule of law. We have all demonstrated commitment to it, because this guarantees predictability, legal security, principle of legality in the work of authorities, respect to the property rights, the right to legal remedies and the right to be compensated for damages. Aren’t these the things that investors need? If I were an investor, I would invest in Serbia not because of the demolition that took place during the night, but because of the reaction to it.
Some say that the events in Savamala were a definite sign that “the mark was overstepped”. Is this the reality, or could we say that we “overstep the mark” every single day when we terrorise and smear the reputation of an investigative news portal or even you, every time you point out to the failures of state bodies?
Even if the mark was overstepped, certain institutions and bulk of citizens have demonstrated their readiness to defend it, which is the best guarantee that “the mark” will survive. The reaction to the Savamala case is a turn from the tendency of tolerating lawlessness, being “resourceful” to the detriment of others; institutions turning a blind eye, corruption and, especially, disappointment and apathy among the citizens who have been putting up with that for too long.
The Savamala case shows how the wider system of checks and balances in the state woke up. The Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection alarmed the public and raised important questions. Witnesses did not get scared off and had enough trust to approach the Protector of Citizens. This institution carried out a very rigorous inspection of the state and the city authorities, registered irregularities and instructed on how those should be corrected. The citizens availed to their freedoms of opinion, expression and assembly. Quite a few media outlets provided timely and comprehensive information. Citizens demand the rule of law and request that the police and other state bodies be more efficient and accountable. Although the highest authorities were in denial and upset at first, ultimately the Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić accepted the position I recommended from the very beginning – that the government should be proud of its citizens for not keeping quiet, but rather fighting for the rule of law. The Prime Minister stated that the protests were “great” and that he was proud of being the Prime Minister of a country where protests were peaceful but critical, despite his insistence that he did not agree with some of the stated claims. He also announced responsibility at the high level, although to be honest, it is still only a promise. I am an optimist: on that night, there were people who were adamant that nobody can stop them, that that they could “switch off” the state for a few hours and that nobody would miss it. Today, we have a reason to believe that they will be proven wrong.
Both our state and society have a lot of potential. My institution is working with the Serbian Chamber of Commerce to train a number of people in the Chamber’s regional offices to start assisting businesspeople who get entangled in the web of our administration. Before the ombudsman steps in, they will be the first to remind civil servants that their job is not to tell something cannot be done, but to explain how it can, and to assist and guide towards an achievement of a legitimate interest. In the case that mediation by the Serbian Chamber of Commerce is not sufficient, then my institution will get involved and, as an authority in the matter, ascertain whether the administration – be it local or state – acts in accord with the principles of good governance and, if necessary, hold them accountable.
What does your 2015 report, which Serbian MPs haven’t even heard, say about the State “overstepping the mark” when it comes to the rights of ordinary citizens, such as, for instance, state authorities contemplating making public the medical records of hundreds of people from Obrenovac, or asking for an ID card when using a toilet at the Zvezdara Community Health Centre in Belgrade?
Regrettably, the National Assembly has failed to discuss my report, or the reports of other independent supervisory bodies, and not only for 2015, but also for 2014. Notwithstanding that this is a breach of the law, the National Assembly is the place where the reports compiled by independent bodies provide incredibly important information to MPs about the way in which the laws, which they have passed, are being implemented. Whoever thought that silencing these reports would make the problems they identify disappear and thus weaken the independent supervisory bodies, was mistaken. Problems need to be considered and resolved, and not doing so will only weaken the National Assembly, erode the trust that citizens have in state unity and jeopardise the national interests. Some people in responsible positions believe that “political will” outpowers rule of law. But having only “good intentions” is not enough. It is crucial for the state to implement those intentions in line with the law, as well as to make sure it doesn’t end up in the wrong place which sometimes lies at the end of the road paved by “good intentions”.
If we step away from these awkward events for a moment, and look at the attitude of the state bodies towards the environmental measures and recommendations that your office has suggested, or the rights of pregnant women, or the need to provide better care for impoverished families, are you satisfied with the way these bodies are implementing your recommendations?
For the biggest part, my recommendations are implemented in the end. Yes, there is sometimes resistance, time being wasted, efforts made to divert attention… this all reduces positive impact, but it is still there. A huge amount of energy is being exerted defending the indefensible or shifting blame onto somebody else instead of getting to work to fix the situation and showing the citizens that the government cares more about their wellbeing than their own illusion of perfection. That’s why the supervisory bodies exist as the part of the system – to correct the inevitable mistakes and boost the trust that the citizens have in their state as a whole.
There is a public perception that you and Commissioner Šabić are the last of the Mohicans and that, considering different obstructions you have to face, like capping your salaries and your institutions’ budgets, you are actually managing to survive in your work thanks to help from the EU or the OSCE. How strong are the foundations of independent institutions in Serbia?
We’ll know that when both of our terms end and new people take on our positions. I hope that we have created good and solid institutions. The testament to this is certainly the trust that citizens have in us, as well as the many national and international awards we’ve received. The survival of our institutions hinges on many factors. Next year is an important one for non-political institutions because the first term of the current President of the State will expire, as will the second term of the ombudsman and the terms of several judges of the Constitutional Court. It is very important for the new ombudsman to ensure that this institution has continuity of work and to be even more persistent, professional and courageous than I have been.
You refuse to speak about running for the position of state president. Still, do you think that, considering the rights that the president has and our political practice, an independent and reputable person in the position of president would be given enough room to raise the democratic capacity of this society?
Of course. The democratic space has to be defended and widened. Just like the ombudsman or the commissioner for information, the state president is a personalized institution and more than usual the office depends on his or her personality. There are many in Serbia who could expand and protect the space for a fair political game and the development of international relations, economy and overall stability of this country and the region. Having the voice of reason and providing balance in the governance system is important to make sure that each change in political power is not an earthquake after which we need to start from scratch.
The opening of EU accession negotiation chapters 23 and 24 is considered as a kind of official beginning of our journey towards the rule of law. What do you expect from this process from the standpoint of your scope of work?
As representatives of the state and its individual bodies, we are not trying to present ourselves in a better light, or – figuratively speaking – to wear a beautiful suit masking an old underwear beneath. I expect that we will use the opportunity to be thoroughly engaged and to make every step along the European way a victory for itself. This will be a huge task for the next ombudsman in his or her effort to prevent the authorities from taking dubious shortcuts. I believe that the opening of the said chapters will finally move the spotlight from pompously adopting laws to actually implementing and adhering to them, 24/7, in every part of the country and in equal measure to everyone. I believe we are going to live better – not because we are going to get money from Brussels, but because our state will be better organised. What I hope the most is that people who are suffering the most now – like adults and children with disabilities, orphans, the old and infirm, impoverished people, the Roma people living in cardboard slums and other very vulnerable citizens – will feel the benefits of the standards that guarantee their right to a dignified life and not to be pitied and lost in red tape, with the state and society constantly finding excuses.
Do you think that your successor is going to have it easier or more difficult than you?
I don’t wish to underestimate the importance of somebody else’s challenges, but I hope that my successors are going to have it easier than me. However, the job of supervising the government and protecting civil interests has never been, and will never be, an easy one. As you can see from the example of certain EU countries, adhering to human rights should never be taken for granted in any country.