AIM: start

SUN, 27 JAN 2002 06:21:48 GMT

NGOs in the Serbian Legislature

Keeping an Eye on Legislators

Serbian Legislature officials explained their decision to let the Otpor movement and NGOs attend Legislature sessions as stemming from a desire to show that there is nothing mysterious about what goes on there. Otpor representatives said this will make it possible for them to help deputies "sober up and become aware of their enormous responsibility."

AIM Belgrade, January 17, 2002

After the New Year and Christmas holidays, which in Serbia last until mid-January, politics is back in focus, although there was no delays in political events even during the holiday period. It was marked by strikes by employees of four former top state-run banks shut down by the government, questions hurled at Serbian Premier Zoran Djindjic regarding his New Year vacation in the United Arab Emirates and its cost, and public calls for testing legislators for drugs so that the public could know what part of their consciousness is active when they are sitting in the Legislature.

Among this rather long list of controversial requests, a decision to allow NGOs and the Otpor movement to attend Legislature sessions, thereby expanding public monitoring of this important institution, drew considerable attention. The move was generally understood as an attempt to instill greater discipline in the Legislature, because both legislative bodies (the Serbian Legislature and the Yugoslav Parliament) have had, some say, efficiency problems.

Sessions have been interrupted or postponed because deputies would leave immediately after getting their allowances and there were even cases of deputies abusing their voting cards. The most drastic example occurred during the passage of the labor bill, when Novi Sad Mayor Borislav Novakovic's vote was accepted although he was in Thessaloniki at the time. Another incident that took place shortly afterwards resulted in the resignation of Dragan Marsicanin, the Legislature speaker.

Although the ruling bloc has a two-thirds majority in the Legislature, the lack of quorum has assumed chronic proportions, and penalties imposed on deputies have failed to cure the disease. It is said that deputies shy away from the job for two reasons. The first is that opposition deputies often exhibit destructive conduct, which is why deputies from the other side prefer to be elsewhere.

The other reason are their numerous obligations. Most deputies have other duties and, unlike Borislav Novakovic, cannot be in two places at the same time. Either because they do not have enough people or because they are selfish and want to hold several positions, certain DOS officials hold more than one office, paying little attention to the fact that this occasionally involves a conflict of interest.

Some deputies exercise legislative and executive power simultaneously, which is reminiscent of the former regime. Because of that the public believes that many current officials were against Slobodan Milosevic, but not against his institutions. This is because little was done to change these institutions, although it requires no money. Many even say that although the system hasn't changed a bit, certain officials have: many have gained considerable weight.

It seems that Otpor members were the first to notice this. With their ominous slogan "We are watching you," they managed to make it into the Legislature, where the visitors area will give them a good view of the attitude of people's representatives. According to the official explanation, Otpor was granted this privilege because of its contribution to toppling the former regime.

The new Serbian Legislature speaker, Natasa Micic, together with Otpor leaders announced other measures intended to "demistify what takes place in the Legislature and prevent misinformation," although the sessions are broadcast live on state TV. The measures in question involve increasing the number of professional deputies. Of the 176 DOS deputies, 58 are paid to do that, and the goal is to bring this number to about 90. This will apparently increase expenses, but it is believed that costs will actually go down, because as paid deputies they will be obliged to attend sessions and the quorum problem will be eliminated.

And while the legislature speaker explains the opening of the Legislature's doors to Otpor and a number of NGOs in terms of better PR, Otpor representative Nenad Konstantinovic openly expresses the hope that their presence will make the deputies "sober up and become aware of their responsibilities." Otpor is demanding the publication of clear information regarding citizens' right to express their views on Serbia's institutions, as well as e-mail addresses of all deputies and data on their property. They are also urging tough measures against embezzlement.

This clearly shows there is dissatisfaction with the Serbian Legislature's performance so far, and its efficiency in changing the system. Instead of this, the Legislature in the past several months was an arena of political struggle between the Democratic Party of Serbia, a DOS member, and other DOS members. It seems that public criticism is bearing fruit and that a reconciliation between the embattled factions, albeit not too enthusiastic, is in sight.

Premier Djindjic has announced that he is willing to give four portfolios in his cabinet to the Democratic Party of Serbia. It remains to be seen whether the other side is willing to accept the offer, because it has asked for more -- that each DOS member be represented proportionally to its political power.

The smaller DOS parties, especially their leaders, will certainly not like this, because that would mean being sidelined. The premier is also unwilling to make greater concessions to the Democratic Party of Serbia. He knows the support of smaller parties is essential for him, and if he is to go on making concessions that will involve his backers, despite their blackmail and the fact that they lack popular support.

Ratomir Petkovic