BELGRADE, Serbia — When Aleksandar Vucic announced the launch of a national campaign against corruption last year, few believed the powerful deputy prime minister’s promise meant anything serious.
Certainly no one would have believed he’d dare go after Serbia’s richest man, the “untouchable” retail tycoon Miroslav Miskovic.
The Forbes list billionaire started building his empire under the rule of strongman Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s — during the country’s wars and an international embargo on Belgrade — and significantly expanded it in the decade following Milosevic’s fall.
Then he became an issue for Serbia’s national interests.
Now 68, his arrest last December on charges of abuse of office and tax evasion was meant to show that the deputy prime minister has no intention of stopping a campaign for “zero tolerance” against corruption, which he calls Serbia’s “biggest burden.”
That’s a key condition for the country’s cherished goal of accession to the European Union.
Stevan Dojcinovic, editor at the Center for Investigative Reporting in Serbia, says assessing the impact of Miskovic’s arrest requires understanding what he represents to Serbians.
“Miskovic is the symbol of corruption, crime, bad management,” he says. “He’s the icon of stealing … It would be very hard to find someone in Serbia who doesn’t hate him.”
Even after Miskovic’s first police hearing last November, experts doubted the case would go further. Political analyst Petar Lazic told Reuters at the time that it looked “more like classic demagoguery, a witch hunt to score political points,” arguing that Miskovic was too powerful and politically connected to have anything to fear.
Nevertheless, Miskovic spent nine months in detention before his release on a record $16 million bail. Accused of stealing more than $30 million during the privatization of a road maintenance company along with his son and nine other people, he’s set to go on trial next month.
Miskovic, who faces up to 10 years in prison, denies the charges.
His arrest scored huge political points for Vucic. A recent survey ranked him Serbia’s most popular politician, with 75 percent of respondents saying he should be prime minister.
Presenting the government’s Action Plan for the Fight Against Corruption last summer, he promised all 24 “dubious privatizations” identified by the EU would be addressed by the end of the year and that charges had already been filed against more than 100 people.
He said the government would track the incomes of all public officials, and establish a system for overseeing their work and avoiding conflicts of interest.
The move was welcomed by the EU, United Nations, and foreign embassies.
But analysts remain unsure about the government’s ability to tackle the root causes of corruption, including the lack of transparency in public affairs.
The organization Transparency Serbia cites “uncertainties” about the next stages of the campaign — including the regulation of lobbying and financing politics and control over officials’ property — saying the government “continues to violate the principle of transparency.”
“Miskovic is certainly not the only tycoon in Serbia,” says Nemanja Nenadic, program director at Transparency Serbia. “If he’s not in a position to influence politicians anymore, it doesn’t mean that no one is.”
He adds that the fight against corruption must target not only individuals, but the entire system to be effective. “We have to close channels of non-transparent influence on the decision making process and on party financing,” he says.
Although the public supports Vucic’s efforts, it doesn’t trust politicians.
According to Transparency International’s latest Global Corruption Barometer, 80 percent of the population believes political parties are “corrupt or extremely corrupt.”
Serbia’s Anti-corruption agency, an independent body, argues that steps are being taken to tackle systemic corruption.
Deputy director Vladan Joksimovic says political parties are now obliged to submit to the agency annual reports of their financing, and had to file reports on their campaign spending during last year’s elections for the first time.
“There are certain gaps, things need to be improved,” he says, but “we’re on the right track.”
More from GlobalPost: Dominique Strauss-Kahn starts work in Serbia
But Dojcinovic, of the Center for Investigative Reporting in Serbia, believes corruption is far from being eradicated in political parties.
“Politicians from parties in power control public companies, whether it’s in the sector of electricity, water, gas, but also hospitals and schools,” he says. “The political parties nominate the directors of these companies and have control. They rip them off, some of the money goes back to political parties for future campaigns, the rest goes into their pockets.”
Although Vucic has said Miskovic’s arrest shows the fight against corruption is “non-selective,” analysts disagree.
“Vucic will not attack the most important officials among his coalition partners,” Dojcinovic says. “The most corrupt will survive and continue to be in power for years.”