By William Infante
Belgrade, 9 January 2013—When I was first posted to Serbia in 2001 with the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the country and its people were still shaken and scarred by years of conflict. Returning in 2009 to lead the United Nations presence here, I was deeply impressed by the swift and substantive progress that was so tangibly under way.
Belgrade had new trams and buses, neighborhoods and parks had been refurbished, and efforts to consolidate democracy, build a more inclusive economy, and establish credible mechanisms to fight corruption were well under way.
Those efforts are expanding continually, and the Government has made tremendous strides in supporting some of its most vulnerable citizens. With UN Development Programme (UNDP) support, Serbia has over the last decade adopted laws to better protect the disabled—about 10 percent of the population—quadrupling the number of disabled people who found jobs in the year 2009-2010.
Serbia’s human development indices, reflecting a basket of indicators such as years of education and lifespan, are rising steadily, and a recent Gallup poll found a jump in the number of Serbs classified as “thriving.”
Life is getting better, to be sure, but more than 25 percent of the working age population is unemployed. The new government’s principal task in 2013 is to support job creation, in an economy hit hard by the global financial downturn.
In the all-important sphere of governance and rule of law, Serbia now has its own Ombudsman, who has already addressed thousands of complaints, a Supreme Audit Institution that has conducted dozens of probes, a Public Procurement Office that is reducing risk and vulnerability, and a freedom of information agency that is spearheading free speech and citizen engagement.
These and other agencies are crucial to building a stable framework for well-functioning, transparent, and accountable democracy that protects and defends human rights and guarantees rule of law—shoring up the domestic social contract as well as international confidence in Serbia as a reliable partner in diplomacy, commerce, and investment.
Serbia must further strengthen political, social, cultural, and economic ties. But it has meanwhile emerged as an increasingly powerful source of security and stability in the region, contributing scores of peacekeepers to international forces, fighting organized crime, collecting and destroying some 100,000 illicit and unregistered firearms, and integrating women in the military and police forces.
Large and growing numbers of officials now proclaim “zero tolerance for corruption.” Ministries are moving to adopt individual anti-corruption strategies known as integrity plans, and dozens of investigations have opened since the new government took office barely six months ago.
UNDP is notably implementing initiatives to promote transparency—training and certifying thousands of procurement officials. UNDP also supported training for close to two dozen auditors at the Supreme Audit Institution.
Parliament is engaged in more robust review and scrutiny, and its Speaker, Nebojsa Stefanovic, is spearheading a new initiative with UNDP to strengthen parliamentary oversight of spending. These and other governance initiatives aim explicitly to promote accountability, reduce vulnerability and risk of loss, and build the credibility and legitimacy of state institutions.
The way forward is clear. Serbia is writing a new narrative of its own, reinventing itself as a guarantor of regional security, an advocate for integrity and rule of law, and a protector of human rights. Its membership in the European Union is a goal within reach.
William S. F. Infante is the UN Resident Coordinator in Serbia