© Jelena Đukić Pejić

How the Pandemic is Helping Serbia in the Struggle Against Bureaucracy

TEXT: Nemanja Rujević – 14. December 2021
© Jelena Đukić Pejić

There is no calculator that could add up all the wasted time and nerves of ordinary people that have faced the monster of Serbian bureaucracy. Everyone knows about the endless queues, mountains of paperwork, and the bribery necessary to finish something that should be a routine issue. A digitized government could change that – but there is still a long way to go before technical solutions are widely adopted.

If Kristina's apartment were to be rented out, the description would say "warm and cozy," and tourists would be offered a view from the top of one of Belgrade's iconic multistory buildings. On cold, windless days, the capital of Serbia sinks into smog, which Kristina can clearly see from her balcony where she sips her morning coffee. The apartment she bought with the help of her parents is her own little kingdom.

But that kingdom came with a caveat that led to this young woman not wanting her real name to appear in the media, even though she did nothing wrong. "When I bought the apartment a few years ago, I reported it in order to pay property taxes," she says. Kristina made regular visits and calls to the tax services, trying to navigate the exhausting bureaucratic labyrinth. "It's bizarre – I'm asking the city to charge me taxes."

It took three years for Kristina to obtain an official decision regarding her property tax, thus ending the bureaucratic nightmare. "Fortunately," she says with a smile, "they didn't ask me to pay anything retroactively. That would be a lot for me now."

Citizens under suspicion

Everyone in this Balkan country knows what the "code" FT1P means. An invention of a popular comedian, it is an abbreviation for "fali ti 1 papir" ("you're missing 1 paper"). If you live here, you have probably heard this sentence at least once from government clerks. It is synonymous with endless queues and paperwork that characterize the bureaucracy that is an inexorable part of everyday life in Serbia.

"That is to an extent a consequence of the old socialist system," says Mihailo Gajić from the libertarian club LIBEK. "Then everything was everyone's, so nothing was anyone's. Nobody cared whether the state would be stolen from or not, so there were laws and controls that encourage bureaucracy, with the idea that no one should deceive the state."

But several decades have passed since socialism ended. Gajić talks glibly and persuasively while we sit in one of the popular chains of Belgrade cafes. There are other cafes around, where drinks are both more expensive and cheaper – a shining example of the market in action. But did that eliminate bureaucracy?

"No,” says Gajić. “Two decades after the economic transition, we still talk about the bureaucracy as hostile to the economy and private citizens. It still sees them as primarily seeking to break the rules rather than pursuing their rights or trying to achieve some goal.”

A treat for civil servants

No calculator could add up all the wasted time and nerves of ordinary people that have faced the monster of Serbian bureaucracy, although there may be one when it comes to obstacles that businesses face and the resources they waste doing so.

But the two may have something in common. As the US State Department states in its report on the business climate in Serbia, despite notable progress, “challenges remain, particularly bureaucratic delays and corruption.”

Apart from Montenegro, all other countries in the Western Balkans are high on the Corruption Perception Index issued by Transparency International. The index ranks 180 countries from least to most corrupt, with the number one spot going to the world’s least corrupt country. Serbia, Albania, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Northern Macedonia fall between 94 and 111.

Experts say that bureaucracy breeds corruption. It is sometimes perceived that corruption is helpful in overcoming bureaucracy – be it twenty euros at the police station to expedite getting a new ID card or paying a thousand times the amount set for more serious "business."

"Corruption overcomes bureaucratic obstacles," Nemanja Nenadić, director of Transparency Serbia, told the BBC. He added that citizens often make life easier for themselves by not viewing things as corruption. "For example, using contacts to get services. They do not see this as a form of bribery."

"The cadastre (official property registry) is notorious for that," adds Gajić. "That institution should be the first to address the protection of property rights. But registration in the cadastre often takes months; papers get lost or stay in someone's drawer so that clerk would require a ‘treat’ to do their job. People often pay lawyers to go take care of something that should otherwise be done in five minutes."

Corona advances e-government

But what can be done in five minutes? Today, short queues across Belgrade provide the answer: vaccination.

It is now time for a booster dose against COVID-19 for those who were vaccinated in the spring, when Serbia was one of the few European countries with enough vaccines for everyone. However, only 3.1 million people were vaccinated in Serbia, which is 45% of the population.

Vaccination is currently being carried out in health centers, some shopping malls and at the Belgrade fair. There are no huge crowds – not only because many do not wish to be vaccinated, but also thanks to an e-government portal providing a simple application and scheduling tool.

People prone to black humor would say that the pandemic came as a relief for the effort of digitalization of public administration, on which the government of Prime Minister Ana Brnabić has placed much hope. For a full decade the e-government drive stalled. Then in February 2020, just before the pandemic hit, a new website went live.

There one can register and, for example, order a new health insurance card or make an appointment for getting an ID card. Parents can apply for daycare for their children and even see their school grades online. So no more lying to mama about F´s.

"For the first time in Serbia, electronic identification with the use of a mobile phone has been introduced in the e-government system, that is, two-factor authentication," says Marija Nikšić, spokeswoman for Serbia’s Office for IT and eGovernment.

Nikšić said that the groundwork for this initiative has been underway for a long time: "It is very important to note that in the past four years we have established the necessary infrastructure and developed numerous electronic services in our work on transforming the public administration into an efficient service for both citizens and the economy. Thanks to that, we have implemented new platforms and electronic services at key moments, practically overnight, and enabled citizens to do business with the state online even during the pandemic."

A path to less paperwork

The torment of the pandemic turned out to be a boon for e-government. Before the coronavirus hit, the portal had 980,000 users. That number has multiplied as more people used the site to apply for vaccinations, schedule their vaccination appointment, get a green certificate that allows travel abroad, or receive a COVID pass, which is a prerequisite to enter restaurants or cafes in the evenings.

According to the statistics of the Observatory of Public Sector Innovation (which is part of the OECD), Serbia ranks among the top five countries that have introduced the most innovative solutions in the fight against the pandemic.

As Gajić says, e-government is not even close to a finished project, but it is providing results, independently of the pandemic. "It's great that now many documents can be obtained online, so you don't have to go to desk clerks.”

"The law from 2016 prevented the state from asking you for documents that have already been obtained by some governmental service or office, but must obtain documents from them. For example, they used to ask you for a birth certificate everywhere, so you had to go to the desk clerk every time and pay the fee. Now other state services obtain that document themselves," Gajić says.

Various documents or appointments can indeed be obtained on the e-government website. However, the nascent state of the service is illustrated by the fact that a birth certificate can be ordered through this portal only in three cities in Serbia; in the other nearly two hundred units of local self-government, this is not yet possible.

Limiting factor: internet access and use

One of the guarantees that desk clerks will survive for some time to come – and have plenty more occasion to terrorize citizens – is the demographic picture of Serbia. With an average age of over 43, Serbian society is one of the oldest in the world, with the lower affinity for internet use that accompanies an older demographic. According to the Republic Bureau of Statistics, almost a fifth of households do not have an Internet connection at all.

But Nikšić claims that this issue is being addressed. "During the pandemic we provided various tools for communication with the elderly population,” she said. “We provided support to those who do not know how to use a computer via phone contact centers through which they could conduct their business with the state."

"My late grandmother retired two years early just to avoid working on a computer,” said Gajić. “The elderly are often distrustful of new technologies.” As confirmation, one only has to visit the nearest post office or bank on the day pensions are paid – there you’ll see queues of pensioners who want their money in cash.

The old proverb “you can´t teach an old dog new tricks” seems to apply here. Tackling the bureaucratic monster requires time and patience.

Nemanja Rujević is a journalist with the German broadcaster DW and a reporter for the Belgrade-based weekly magazine Vreme.

This article appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of Helvetas Mosaic

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