35th Session of the Congress, 6-8 November 2018, Strasbourg
Speech by Nebojsa ZELENOVIC, Mayor of Sabac
Check against delivery
Mayors under pressure
Strasbourg, France, 6 November 2018
Members of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities,
I would like to thank you for inviting me to address the Chamber and to speak about the dramatic events in Serbia that are on the way to destroy local democracy, political pluralism and undermine citizen participation and representation.
I would like to stress that I am not here to complain. The situation for the opposition in Serbia is obviously difficult. However, the focus of my presentation goes beyond unfair political struggle or competition. It is about the core values of the Council of Europe and the European Charter of Local Self-Government.
As I understand the principles of local democracy in our countries, it is to protect the high standards of functioning democratic institutions which are closest to the citizens. The Charter requires from us to guarantee political, administrative and financial independence of local authorities.
We will show that all three of these pillars are under attack only in those cities and municipalities which are not ruled by the ruling Serbian Progressive Party of President Aleksandar Vučić.
Today the loop is getting tighter and there are now only 3 out of 170 municipalities that are independent of the control of the Serbian Progressive Party and they are: Šabac, Paraćin and Čajetina. These three local governments and their 185.000 inhabitants, as well as 448 local assembly opposition members in other 40 cities is who I speak for here today. We represent different parties of the political spectrum, but we have one common denominator - we are all under constant pressure because we are not controlled by the central government and the ruling party.
It is very easy to prove that the institutions of the system and the Rule of Law are applied selectively. Police investigators, tax officers, pro-government tabloids, are prosecuting only the ones considered not to be loyal to the central government, irrespective of the law and the will of the citizens who voted for us locally.
As Party to the European Charter of Local Self-Government, Serbia should respect these obligations.
Therefore, here are the examples of this suppression of local democracy in Serbia:
1. I will start with the breach of Article 3 which guarantees free elections and secret voting. Local elections in Serbia are now regularly accompanied with violence at polling stations and open threats to voters and candidates. In 2013. Danilo Bobić from Vrbas and Danko Pavlović from Odžaci, candidates of the Democratic party, were both physically assaulted during election campaigns. Milan Gavrilović was assaulted in 2014.
2. Every day, we are witnessing grave breaches of Article 7 of the Charter which guarantees free performance of elected officials.
Since 2012 the ruling party has introduced methods of altering the will of the voters and tampering with election results by force. Due to pressure mechanisms by the Serbian Progressive Party the majority in local governments has been rearranged in 35 out of 170 municipalities and cities. Methods that are used to put pressure on Assembly members are: offering bribes, offering political positions, threatening with job dismissals and abuse of institutions.
The central government abuses police and secret service to conduct pressure on courts and prevent elected representatives to perform their duty.
In my own city of Šabac, the ruling party tried to prevent the verification of credentials of newly elected members by violence. This is an example where election defeat becomes a cause for disorder and for blocking the functioning of democratic institutions.
Since 2012, 34 former mayors not belonging to SNS have been arrested, with huge media coverage and smear campaigns. To date, none of them were convicted.
The three of us are still under constant attack by government officials and pro-government media, trying to criminalize us.
Recently, in April this year, a group of activists accompanied by night club bouncers tried to break in the Municipality of Paraćin trying to interrupt the session of the Assembly. Their plan was to interrupt regular proceedings and to try to provoke early elections.
It is about time that president of Čajetina Milan Stamatović answers in front of judicial authorities for all criminal acts in his municipality.“ This statement was not made by the State Prosecutor, but by a Government Minister and Vice President of the ruling Party.
Another statement by a high ranking SNS official: „One of the main goals of the Serbian Progressive Party is to get a new better, incorrupt government in Šabac. I am telling you, that the State authorities of the Republic of Serbia will do their best to change that situation“.
In Šabac, we can report unlawful pressures on the judiciary. Judge Biljana Mraović is under severe pressure and media lynch for her decision of acquittal in the case against myself as Mayor of Šabac for alleged wasteful spending of the budget. She found there was no evidence to the allegations, but has consequently been informed by the President of the Magistrate Court Milorad Maletić that, and I quote: „You have to find a way to convict him, we owe that to the Serbian Progressive Party“.
We have written statements from witnesses on political pressures they were subject to. Sreten Živanić a retired army major and a representative in the Šabac Assembly has confirmed that Veselin Šljivančanin, a convicted war criminal came to his house to tell him he should join the ruling party. Vladan Vujanić also a representative from Šabac and a business owner stated that the Minister of Agriculture told him that he will receive state subsidies for his business if he supported the Serbian Progressive Party.
3. We also have examples of Breaches of Article 9 and the right of local authorities to their own financial funds.
We are under constant financial pressure from the central government. Many projects and transfers are blocked because of this situation. Also, money allocated t from the state budget are only transferred by political affiliation. For example, in 2017 the cities run by the ruling party received an average 6 million EUR of funds through current transfers and budget reserves. The three municipalities run by the opposition received an average of 1.9 million EUR. The city of Leskovac with 138.000 inhabitants received 12 million EUR, and Šabac with 112.000 inhabitants received 2.5 million. The city of Zaječar was awarded 3.6 million EUR for changing their political affiliation. This was the price for the majority to shift from opposition to the ruling party, regardless of the will of the voters.
Article 9 of the Charter also underlines that local authorities will be consulted appropriately on the ways of awarding them rearranged funds. The State now owes 5 million EUR to the City of Šabac. The National Development Fund has never fulfilled its contractual obligation of 1 million EUR for the reconstruction of the City swimming pool. The central government is also blocking the possibility of the City to manage its own property that has a value of 4 million EUR.
4. Breaches of Article 4 of the Charter which speaks about the scope of local self-government and their right to be consulted on matters that directly affect them.
A kindergarten in Paraćin has serious problems in their regular activities. The reason is that they did not get the government permit to employ 40 teachers and other necessary staff to work in the kindergarten.
The cities of Paraćin and Šabac have the least number of employees in the public sector per number of inhabitants. Just to illustrate. Šabac with its 112.414 inhabitants has 1422 employees and Pančevo 120.881 inhabitants have 2280 employees.
In Čajetina, contrary to the Charter provisions that the powers given to local government has to be exclusive, the Government of Serbia decided to take those powers and manage construction land instead of the municipality.
5. There are also Breaches of Article 8 that speaks about limited administrative control of local authorities.
One such example also in Čajetina, where a project of construction of a cable car line worth 13 million EUR has been sabotaged by the Government.
Ladies and gentlemen, I understand that an electronic version of my presentation was distributed to you. Also, we can provide all the evidence I have mentioned (witness statements, financial documents, media headlines) that can be sent to you on demand.
Finally, I belong to the generation that has started our struggle for democracy under the regime of Slobodan Milošević. I strongly believe that the majority of citizens of Serbia are longing for more democracy and justice. However, in a captured state that we are now in, it is becoming more and more difficult for the people to vote freely, to choose freely and to express their will freely. I therefore invite you to assess the application of the European Charter of Local Self Government in Serbia today and to help us achieve a fair and pluralistic political competition.
Thank you very much for this opportunity.