Panel discussion: Is the depoliticisation of the intelligence sector possible?

Institute Alternative is organising a panel discussion “Is the depoliticisation of the intelligence sector possible? – Regional Perspective”, to discuss Montenegrin as well as regional experience of the intelligence sector reform.

After “The Bomb” affair in North Macedonia, that uncovered the illegal wiretapping of 20,000 citizens, comprehensive legal and institutional reforms under the auspices of European and Euro-Atlantic integration have begun.

On the other side, reform of the intelligence sector in Serbia is one of the benchmarks within Chapter 24, in the context of negotiations with the European Union.

During the panel discussion, the following issues will be discussed :

  • What can we learn from the example of security services misuse in North Macedonia? What questions are raised in working on reforms? What are the new legislative changes and what progressive solutions have been adopted?
  • What is the role of the intelligence sector in Serbia in the state capturing? What do examples of practice tell us? What are the consequences of too strong links between agencies and politicians ?
  • How to strengthen parliamentary oversight , internal control and independent institutions and and how to provide democratic and civilian control of the work of the services?

Answers to these questions will be offered by:

• Magdalena Lembovska, Center of European Strategies – EUROTHINK, North Macedonia

• Predrag Petrović, Belgrade Center for Security Policy, Serbia

• Dina Bajramspahić, IA, will talk about Montenegrin intelligence sector reform and she will also moderate the discussion.

The panel discussion will be held on Thursday, December 5, at the CentreVille Hotel, starting at 5am.

This discussion is supported by the European Fund for The Balkans through the project “Watching the Watchers: Towards Accountable Intelligence Services in the Western Balkans” which is jointly implemented by Belgrade Center for Security Policy from Serbia, the Center for European Strategies – EUROTHINK from North Macedonia and the Institute Alternative from Montenegro.

Blog: Toxic Paint for Children

On 1 August this year the Ministry of Sports and Youth signed a public procurement contract for the construction works to reconstruct the gym and sanitary facilities at the”Štampar Makarije“ Primary School in Podgorica. The contractor that won the works contract worth EUR 28,855. 95 was ”ART Gradnja“, a company from Bar.

While the works were ongoing, a concerned parent of one of the students attending the school in question, an engineer qualified for supervision of construction works, became to suspect that the contractor was not using appropriate paint on the walls of the gym locker room. On 1 October, that parent alerted the competent ministries and the school that the use of the materials being used to refurbish the walls of the school gym locker room (enamel varnish and oil-based paint for wooden surfaces) was not in conformity with the applicable regulations banning and restricting the use, marketing and production of the chemicals which posed unacceptable risks to human health and the environment.

In simple terms, the paint and varnish intended for the exterior were being used for the interior of the given facility and therefore potentially presented a health risk.

The parent asked for immediate suspension of the works, followed by mechanical removal of the coats already applied. At the time when the locker rooms were in use, the paint odour was almost unbearable and some children even experienced health problems, such as nausea, stomach pains and dizziness. The locker rooms were subsequently closed; in the report dated 15 October, the inspection noted that the contractor had scraped off the unsuitable coat and applied “suitable paint”.

That would have been the end of it, had the same parent not visited the facilities, felt the strong odour of oil-based paint, scratched the surface of the walls and found the same unsuitable and illicit paint beneath.

Following up on the repeated report, the sanitary inspection carried out several site visits during the first half of November and drafted several reports. One of the reports confirmed that the contractor had not complied with the inspection’s previous instructions. The locker rooms have remained closed for two months now.

It seems that the removal of the harmful paint started in mid-November; however, no public and credible information has been made available. None of the authorities, namely the Ministry of Sports and Youth, Ministry of Education, Primary School and Administration for Inspection Affairs provided public information about the event over the course of 60 days.

Still, all the developments corroborated the suspicions raised by the concerned parent whom we can essentially consider the whistle-blower in this case, in the best possible sense of the term.

Instead of expressions of gratitude to the concerned parent and clear notices that the locker rooms were closed in the interest of the children and due to a health risk, the comment circulating the school corridors was along the lines that ”some parents are causing trouble, so poor kids cannot use the locker rooms.”

It is important to stress that this case points to something that may be of systemic importance.  It seems that reconstruction of public buildings does not require mandatory supervision. That leaves room for this or a similar type of paint to be used elsewhere, or for harmful materials to be used in schools, hospitals or other facilities important for human life and health. It is possible that, when such other facilities were undergoing similar reconstruction, there was noone there at the time to detect breach of rules and health risks. Thus, this is left depending entirely on the conscience and professionalism of the contractors. One of the contractors whom I trust told me: “If I wanted to install radioactive material in the school I was hired to help reconstruct, I could have done it, as there was no oversight”.

The contractors must know that the Criminal Code provides that “a person responsible for  …execution of works who, in the course of execution, fails to comply with the regulations concerning spatial planning and construction or with the commonly accepted technical rules, thus causing danger to the human lives or bodies … shall be punishable by a prison term ranging from six months to five years, and if the offence was committed  out of negligence, the perpetrator shall be punishable by a fine or by a prison term of up to three years.” This applies, naturally, provided that the case is detected, the Administration for Inspection Affairs files a criminal complaint, and the prosecution takes it up.

Ultimately, it is worrying that this story that I tried to share with several media on several occasions and for several days did not capture practically any attention.  No media reported on this over one-and-a half months. It remains to be seen whether they will investigate the systemic proportions and challenges that the case points to. The case reminds us that we have to trust our own eyes and common sense rather than the institutions, that we must not scare our children with whistle-blowers or with people who point to possible problems, to whom we should instead somehow show our gratitude. On the other hand, we have to ask school management to act as ambassadors of the children rather than advocates for the ministers and ministries, and to consider concerned parents as their allies rather than “a threat”.

Stevo Muk
President of the Managing Board

Blog was originally published in daily newspaper ”Vijesti” and on the ”Vijesti” portal.

Stevo Muk in Vijesti’s TV show ’’Načisto’’

Watch a full video of Petar Komnenić’s TV show ’’Načisto’’ broadcasted on TV Vijesti, featuring Stevo Muk, president of the Managing Board at Institute Alternative. Remarks published in the European Commission’s non-paper concerning chapters 23 and 24 were discussed, focusing on judiciary.

Beside Stevo, guests of the show aired on 21 November 2019 were Ana Perović Vojinović, member of the Judicial Council, Ranko Krivokapić, SDP’s member of the Parliament of Montenegro and Velimir Rakočević, member of the Prosecutorial Council.

Muk believes that the European Commission’s working paper on Chapters 23 and 24 contains almost similar or the same assessments as previous reports of the EC recognised, adding that now in some areas these grades more directly indicate some new issues and challenges that appeared as problematic.

’’It seems to me that everything that NGOs, ie critically oriented part of NGOs and public have been saying for the past six months or a year, has been recognised and written down by people of the European Commission in this document’’, said Muk.

IA met with the TAIEX peer-review mission on public procurement

Ana Đurnić, public policy researcher at Institute Alternative (IA), attended the meeting with the TAIEX experts within their Case-based Peer-review mission on public procurement.

The objective of this peer-review mission was to provide the European Commission and Montenegro with an assessment of the vulnerable areas in public procurement and how the oversight system is effectively functioning. Ana presented some of the key findings from the most recent IA’s researches.

She pointed out that the centralisation of the public procurement is at the very early stage and faces numerous problems, while there is plenty room for improvement, particularly in terms of transparent spending on centralised procurement. Planning and reporting on such procurement are largely decentralised, and the multitude of data hinders access to reliable and detailed figures on centralised spending. Centralised procurement are not planned sufficiently thoroughly and timely, which causes problems in practice and leaves the administration without some of the essential tools for its work and operation.

When it comes to low value procurement, Ana highlighted that their sole introduction into the Montenegrin public procurement system significantly reduced transparency and competitiveness of public procurement. Low value procurement are characterised by wide discretion of the contracting authorities – while the Law prescribes only value thresholds of this procurement, everything else is determined by the internal acts of the contracting authorities. Ana explained that the Proposal of the new Law on Public Procurement envisages these procurement to be regulated by the Act prepared by the Ministry of Finance and equally obligatory for all the contracting authorities. She added that it is of utmost importance that Montenegrin public and European Commission get involved in the process of preparation of this Act and ensure that it properly responses to the challenges mapped in the implementation of the low value procurement so far.

Ana also pointed out that security and defence procurement are still insufficiently regulated and far from being in compliance with the EU regulations. The Law on Public Procurement dedicates only two articles to these procurement, while the envisaged bylaws are not yet adopted, although the deadline for their adoption has passed two years ago.

She expressed dissatisfaction with the fact that the Ministry of Finance did not organise public discussion on the Draft of the new Law on Public Procurement and explained that this jeopardised the principle of participatory decision-making in Montenegrin society.

The following TAIEX mission experts participated in the meeting:

Edvins Parups, Metodological assistance to the Subordinated Institutions, Ministry of Culture, Latvia

Dr Marcin Jedrasik, Deputy Director, Legal Department, Solidarity Transport Hub Poland, 100% State-owned company(entity subordinated to the Ministry of Infrastructure), Poland

Nina Čulina, Head of Sector for system development and international cooperation, Directorate for Public Procurement System Ministry of Economy, Entrepreneurship and Crafts, Croatia.

Mr Krzysztof ZUREK from the DG NEAR also took part in the meeting.

The meeting took place on November 20, 2019, and was initiated by the Delegation of the European Union to Montenegro.

Proposed Law on Free Access to Information Unsustainable in Montenegrin Context

Adoption of the Draft Law on Free Access to Information in proposed form would take us 15 years backwards. We have been moving in this direction for years, facing administrative silence, long-standing procedures in Agency for Free Access to Information and average duration of the procedures in Administrative Court that are longer than 13 months.

This was stated by Stevo Muk, President of the Managing Board at Institute Alternative (IA) at the conference “Back to basics: Informed Citizens – Active Society!”.

Muk considers that Government and Ministry of Public Administration persistently deny the direct connection between transparency and accountability.  “However, openness is not a goal itself, but it is precondition for monitoring accountability of administration’s work”, stated Muk.

Akvile Normantiene, Political Affairs Officer in the Delegation of the European Union to Montenegro, said that free access to information is very important topic in the context of Montenegro and accession negotiations with European Union.

Specific provisions that are now contained in the Draft of the Law, such as abuse of the rights must be carefully reviewed in the Montenegrin context”, stated Normantiene adding that there are other legal solutions that can prevent abuse of law on free access to information.

Helen Darbishire, Executive Director of Access Info Europe expressed serious concern about how the abuse of right to free access to information was defined.

We recommend that you do not continue with the draft Law which is currently in procedure, it is too broadly defined in several parts and you may regret later for its adoption”, highlighted Helen.

Dejan Milenković, SIGMA expert on public administration, agreed that proposed provision on abuse of right opens up possibility for discretionary decision making, adding that the article that refers to relative exceptions – “for other reasons prescribed by Law” is also uncertain.

“That provision absolutely should not be placed in the draft Law because this opens an unlimited circle for potential exceptions to the exercise of the right on free access to information”, emphasised Milenković.

Dina Bajramspahić, Public Policy Researcher at Institute Alternative, as a main complaint stressed that during the public consultation and numerous presentations of the draft Law, no arguments that led to such decision were given.

“If such Law come into force, we will have entire areas completely excluded from the Law, but we have not heard why. We do not know what caused the Government to relax institutions such as the Police and the National Security Agency from law enforcement”, said Bajramspahić.

As a controversial, Bajramspahić consider provision that refers on narrowing the definition of information. “This means that authorities introduce possibilities for rejecting access to information in their possession claiming that information is not of public importance, or that it is not related to the work, organisation and competence of the authority”, added Bajramspahić.

Danijela Nedeljković Vukčević, Director General of the Directorate of State Administration in the Ministry of Public Administration, stated that reasons for proposing these amendments are “inconsistency of norms, the existence of contradictory determinations of one article in relation to another, short deadlines for decision-making and a large number of appeals that are currently in circulation”.

“Everyone recognise the fear of introducing the institute of abuse of right in the legal system of Montenegro from various reasons. It is important that we have identified issues, we need to determine the measure and propose the best solutions’’, added Nedeljković Vukčević.

Junajo Cordero, International Expert for access to information, said that right on free access to information is fundamental democratic right.

“Governments and civil servants are those who manage the public resources that belong to all citizens of Montenegro, and that includes information. This is why public information must be available to all stakeholders and it is very important that civil servants are held accountable for managing those resources”, stated Cordero.

Slavoljupka Pavlović, Assistant Secretary General in Institution of Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection, said that in the Law of Republic of Serbia there are no any single absolutely exception to the right of free access to information.

“I believe that this is always good solution that leads to greater transparency and this is the reason why this Law was normatively ranked as one of the best laws”, stressed Pavlović and added that all information that are directly or indirectly linked to the spending of public funds are par excellence information that must be publicly available.

Kristina Kotnik Šumah, Deputy Commissioner at Information Commissioner of Slovenia, said that Slovenia has very well defined exceptions to the access to information, which are listed in the Law on Free Access to Information. In Slovenia, there are no general exceptions to the right or restrictions that could be defined in a specific law.

“There are eleven exceptions to the free access to information in our Law, and all of them are very precisely defined – we all know exactly what business secret and classified information are and what it can be related to”, said Kotnik Šumah adding that unless some information is essentially secretive, no one can declare it secret.

Speaking about abuse of the right, Kotnik Šumah emphasised that it is very important that this is used in a very restrictive way.  “In Slovenia, public authorities can not reject request for access based on abuse of right because a large number of documents have been requested or if acting on the request entails large amount of work”, she added.

Lana Podgoršek, from NGO Code for Croatia, pointed out that Law on free Access to Information in Croatia is well defined, but there are a lot of challenges in its implementation in practice.

“Issues arise when submitting information in an open format and while informing citizens on the which information should be publicly available”, said Podgoršek. She added that civil servants often do not know what they can or can not publish, which further prolongs the process.

The conference was organised within the project “YOU4EU – Citizen Participation 2.0”, which is implemented by Institute Alternative in cooperation with partners from Serbia (Belgrade Open School), Croatia (Gong), Slovenia (PiNA) and Spain (Access Info Europe) with the support of European Union within the Europe for Citizens Program.

IA at the Third SIGMA Regional Conference on Public Procurement

Ana Đurnić, Public Policy Researcher at the Institute Alternative, participated at the Third Regional Conference on Public Procurement, held on 6-7 November 2019, in Tbilsi, Georgia.

Within the second panel on the role of civil society in monitoring the implementation of procurement rules, Ana spoke about the way of functioning public procurement system in Montenegro, what are the most problematic areas and how does the Institute Alternative seek to contribute to the improvement of that system.

Ana stated that procedures of law value procurement are characterised by wide discretion of the contracting authorities to define these procedures by the internal acts, delays in adopting internal acts that regulate low value procurement, as well as reduced transparency and competitiveness.

When it comes to the centralised procurement, Ana pointed out the obligation to consolidate the procurement of the goods and services was introduced in January 2018. Also, planning and reporting on such procurements are largely decentralised, and the multitude of data hinders access to reliable and detailed figures on centralised spending. As a problem she also mentioned that centralised procurement are not planned sufficiently thoroughly and timely, which causes problems in practice and leaves the administration without some of the essential tools for its work and operation.

As a key problem regarding the procurement in security and defence area, Ana stressed that the envisaged by-laws in this area have never been adopted, while Law itself superficially regulates these procurement through only two legal articles.  Ana added that most documents regarding to this procurement are not publicly available and were classified as “Internal”.

Ana also said that the Government had adopted New Proposal to the Law on Public Procurement, but that it had not been prepared in a participatory process involving all stakeholders. She also pointed out that the areas that have been most problematic in the past have been left to be regulated by separate acts after the adoption of the Law.

The topics discussed during the conference included: public procurement policies promoted by the EU and OECD, tools for increasing efficiency (including tools for centralised procurement and framework agreements), electronic procurement, access to procurement markets for small and medium-sized enterprises, as well as key requirements for an independent and efficient review system.

Conference was organised by SIGMA and State Procurement Agency of Georgia for all European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) East countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine).

Please find more information about this conference here.