Source: Danas

State Audit Institution exists since 2005, but only on paper

Personal attitude, Rodoljub Sabic

At this time last year our country had an extremely rare opportunity.  Early in May 2007 it was Serbia's turn to take over six-month presidency of the Council of Europe. The opportunity to preside the largest international organization of states after the UN, measured by the number of members, is something that happens once in about 25 years. Thus, it is very rare and therefore has great importance for every member state. And the delicate international position of our country increased the significance of the fact that the country presiding the Council of Europe takes the spotlight in the international public, which opens for it great opportunities to affirm its advantages and disperse with possible negative prejudices about it. 

It was with this opportunity in mind that I publicly expressed my regrets at the time about the fact that we welcomed the opportunity to preside the Council of Europe like no other country before us. We took the presidency of an organization whose actions are based on promotion of democratic institutions in an almost chaotic state of affairs. With a technical Government, obstructed Parliament and Constitutional Court, Ombudsman and State financial audit existing only on paper, to name but a few issues. With this state of affairs, the question simply had to be asked: who is more guilty of the problems we face and our bad image, prejudices of others or we alone?

Within this context, the situation in which we enter the one-year anniversary of our presidency of the Council of Europe is indicative. As regards the Government and the Parliament, the situation is more or less identical as a year ago. The Government is technical, the Parliament dissolved and a new one is to be constituted. And what is the situation in other institutions mentioned?

The Constitutional Court somehow managed to overcome its obstruction, and Ombudsman began to function and the Council of the State Audit Institution was appointed.  However, the Constitutional Court has only 10 instead of 15 envisaged judges and Ombudsman faces the lack of many HR, material and logistic assumptions necessary for its operations, and taking into account the increase of their duties, they cannot be expected to fulfil them completely. The State Audit Institution, besides the fact that its Council has been appointed, does not even have the basic assumptions for work and accordingly cannot exercise its function at all. The Technical government and the dissolved Parliament are unavoidable consequences of the parliamentary elections. This is therefore something that is implied; not just our specificity, but something that is possible at any time in a democratic society. However, in order to understand the circumstances under which the Constitutional Court and Ombudsman work one indeed has to have much benevolence.

But, even with the best of will it is impossible to understand the state of affairs in State Audit Institution. Simply, the contrast between this state of affairs and the fact that advocacy for fight against abuse and corruption was almost dominant in pre-election campaign verges on the grotesque, the absurd. Even ludicrous, because it is evident that, from the point of view of modern standards, we have had invalid mechanism for public revenues control for years, which, instead of two, has only one leg - the one consisting of the Public Procurement Administration and the Commission for Protection of Rights of Tenderers in Public Tenders. And it is also evident that this creates enormous damage.

All transition economies activated their state financial audit a long time ago, together with other anti-corruption institutions.  This function was introduced in early or mind 1990s in other former Yugoslav republics - Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. The last but one was Montenegro: it adopted the Law in April 2004 and the State Audit Institution began operating by the end of that year. We are the last, and ours is still not functioning. And the Law on State Audit Institution was enacted, as long ago as in 2005. The Council, the chief body of this institution, had to be appointed within six months after the effective date of the Law, but it had not been so. Later, in 2006, GRECO recommended activation of the State Audit Institution without delay. The Council was not appointed until the end of 2007, but that action did not activate the Audit Institution. It does not even have a head office, so it has no staff other than the members of the Council. This is why our control mechanism performs mostly formal, not substantive, control of public procurements. Even in these conditions, its operation has had very useful effects for years in terms of saving of hundreds of millions of euros. However, by introducing substantive control, one that includes control of purposefulness and rationality among other things, which is the duty of Audit Institution, we would ensure additional savings of at least 5-10 percent of total - constantly growing - expenditures for public procurements, or, to put it more clearly, of at least EUR 100-200 million per year.

For several years we have been failing to save this money. This is more than enough reason to solve the problems in connection with the operating requirements for the Audit Institution. And there are also other reasons which cannot be measured by money. For a state with any aspiration towards being taken seriously, the problems that our Audit Institution faces appear not insoluble, but trivial. For this reason, resolution of these problems should not wait for election of the new government. It really is an obligation which the current technical Government should also comply with.