In a nutshell, September in the Serbian Parliament can be marked as extraordinary. The fifth session of the current parliamentary convocation, and the circumstances under which it was held were deemed extraordinary, and in the end, extraordinary parliamentary and Belgrade elections were requested. Before the start of this session, hastily convened with 25 agenda items, opposition political parties, which are also supporting organisation of the ‘Serbia against violence’ protests, requested that “snap parliamentary and Belgrade elections be called as soon as possible” and announced a blockade of this institution’s work until they receive a response to this demand.
And they turned their words into actions. The extraordinary session at which 25 agenda items were ‘considered’ and adopted lasted two days, several hours each, plus voting, and took place in an atmosphere that resembled at times an unequal high-risk match or a bullfight, or one of the infamous reality shows against which citizens have been fighting on the streets for months.
Accompanied by the sound of whistles, vuvuzelas and shouts of opposition MPs, the budget rebalancing, excise tax increase and several education laws were voted, and a minister was elected. In the midst of applause and cheers, the new member of the government, Slobodan Cvetković took the oath that went unheard.
Six out of the nine opposition parliamentary groups stuck to the decision to block the session: Direction Europe – Party of Freedom and Justice (SSP), Movement of Free Citizens (PSG), Overturn, Unity; Green-Left Club; Democratic Party; Together – We must; People’s Party and People’s Movement. Dveri expressed their support, while two opposition groups did not participate at all: Hope and Oath-keepers.
The session hence flew by in a haze of noise and insults given to the MPs of the opposition, who did not get any answer about when and which elections will be called.
Cordons in the assembly hall
Looking back upon the second day, when amendments were to be debated, when details were to be discussed, when all those new laws and regulations were to be interpreted – the only one whose voice was heard was the Speaker of the Parliament, Vladimir Orlić. We will give three examples from the shorthand notes dated September 6th, in order to illustrate what the debate on amendments looked like. All that time, the members of the government and the Speaker were separated from their fellow MPs by a security cordon (allegedly plainclothes police).
Orlić: The amendment to Article 43 was jointly submitted by Zelenović, Aleksandar Jovanović and others. Come on, you, who are thieves and who like to remind yourselves of what kind of thieves you were and still are, just so you can have a little laugh too. We have an amendment submitted jointly by Zelenović and Ćuta Jovanović, and now Ćuta Jovanović is announcing that he is leaving Zelenović, he is leaving the parliamentary group and the party and everything else with disgust. You don’t know what to do with yourself. You scream here, you behave like children, you still fight like horns in a sack, you abandon one another, and now you call yourselves and one another thieves. People know you are thieves. People know what kind of thieves you were and remain. Those 500,000 citizens know that you left them without work and their families without bread so that you could plunder. You’re a shame and a disgrace, and then you wonder why no one can bear to look at you, let alone vote for you. Who can they vote for? For you? So that you can continue to ruthlessly exploit them, to ruin their lives, to steal always their children’s future. It’s not going to happen. Ever. You just go on gnawing and biting one another. You’re good-for-nothing anyway.”
Or, for example –
Orlić: “The amendment to Article 7 was jointly submitted by MPs of the parliamentary group Oath-keepers.
Do you still have anything smart to say in your misery, wretchedness and despair? Wasn’t it enough for you to attack an MP who talks about treating sick children? You all needed to be reminded of what kind of thieves you are. We know it. What else do you need? Do you need to invent something else, to lie, to say more about the man whom you can never and nowhere defeat, who politically beat you to the bone wherever he met you? Just scream on. Just scream on and rampage, so that all those people who were shaken by the tragedy that happened this year can hear, what a mockery you have turned it all into. Shame on you. Shame on you.
Orlić: The amendment to Article 7 was jointly submitted by Lazović and his group, Zelenović and his group and Dveri group.
By the way, during all this time, nobody, absolutely none of the submitters of all these amendments has tried and requested the floor. There is no one in the system. They came here to make a circus, to create a flea market, to scream, to show how uncouth, how unrefined they are. Then why did you submit the amendments? Then why did you mistreat the employees of the Assembly? Always caring only about yourself.”
It is pointless to even remind that Orlić violates the rules of procedure every time he addresses MPs from his Speaker’s seat (not to mention when he insults and accuses them), given that he is the one “in charge of maintaining order during the session”. His fellow party members have never objected.
Accordingly, Orlić has called on the opposition to be ashamed 24 times (Be ashamed of yourselves and anyone who has ever known you in life should be ashamed too). He has accused his colleagues of being thieves 51 times, mentioned the pensions that the opposition does not want to raise 15 times, invoked children and mothers 25 times, and referred to them as looters ‘only’ five times, and the list goes on. All of this happened just during the second day.
And yet in the end, all the legislative proposals were adopted and they are now valid, regardless of the atmosphere in which they were passed. According to the rules of procedure, MPs were offered to take the floor, but they did not want to, not only the opposition MPs, but also those of the incumbent majority. If asked, the ruling majority MPs might simply say that have had no objections – everything was to their liking.
Rebalancing in the uproar
While it was still thought that the rebalancing of the Budget for 2023 would be discussed, the Fiscal Council published its analysis with the caveat that there was little time for the analysis, because the rebalancing was adopted by the government on September 2nd, and the session of the parliamentary committee at which it was supposed to considered was scheduled just two days later. Then the Fiscal Council warned that an opportunity to reduce the public debt had been missed:
“If there were no rebalancing, changes in public revenues and public expenditures would result, in a strong and desirable reduction of the fiscal deficit from the planned 3.3 percent of GDP to below 1.5 percent of GDP, i.e. they would reduce the country’s borrowing by about 1.3 billion euros compared to the original budget plan. Nevertheless, instead of rebalancing, the Government introduced new and strong expenditure measures, which almost brought the fiscal deficit and state borrowing back to the originally planned level. The most important measures were the following: 1) an increase in subsidies for agriculture, 2) an extraordinary increase in pensions, 3) an increase in wages for employees in education and the healthcare sector, and 3) a one-time payment of 10,000 dinars for each child up to the age of 16”, stated the Fiscal Council. However, they also praised the fact that the plans did not “get out of control” and that the rebalancing itself was not excessively “risky”.
Every time that the budget is discussed, the media publish the same news about billions of revenues and expenditures, which does not really mean much to citizens. Since that basic information was also missing this time, we compared those two documents, the adopted budget and the rebalance, and at first glance it can be seen that the revenues are higher than planned, but that the expenditures are also higher. We reviewed and compared only the list of capital investments for the year 2023 and the changes that occurred in the budget rebalancing.
When it comes to the Ministry of Interior, the Sector for Emergency will receive slightly less money for capacity building than planned in 2023, as well as for the procurement of weapons, but will have more for the reconstruction of facilities. All in all, about 500 million less for the police.
On the other hand, the Ministry of Finance was allocated about 14 billion from the budget for projects, while after this adopted rebalancing, it will get as much as 22 billion. For example, last year, 7,691,000,000 dinars were planned for the construction of the National Stadium, and now that expenditure has increased to 12,300,000,000.
If we add to that almost four billion for EXPO 2027 and some IT system upgrades, it is clear where the increase is coming from. If there had been a discussion, maybe the minister would have explained what kind of chair, what kind of grass, what kind of expensive faucet is needed for that stadium. Like this, we can only guess. Or someone could have deciphered which capacities the Customs Administration and the Treasury Administration will not improve, since that part of their budget has been reduced.
When it comes to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as the Ministry of Defence, its vehicles, and equipment nothing has changed. Everything is as it was planned. However, the Ministry of State Administration and Local Self-Government doubled the budget. It was not big, 384,884,000 was planned for local development, and after the rebalancing, the same item increased to 763,915,000, implicating that the effort and work of the line minister, Aleksandar Martinović, obviously paid off.
Expectedly, the Ministry of Construction, Transport and Infrastructure has the largest number of projects. A total of 200,219,000,000 billion was planned in the budget, while now it is planned to grow to 215,780,588,000. According to projects, for example, the expenditure for the Hungarian-Serbian railway increased from 25 to 42 billion, but the planned expenditure for the reconstruction of the Niš-Dimitrovgrad railway was reduced by almost two billion. Less money goes to the road Preljina-Požega, but way more goes to the road Ruma- Šabac-Loznica. The construction of a new port in Belgrade seems to have been abandoned, but about four billion more is allocated for the interchange near Požarevac. The 2,200,000,000 dinars planned for the construction of the Belgrade Metro seem somewhat modest now.
There are no major variations when it comes to the Ministry of Justice, nor the Ministry of Environmental Protection. The Ministry of Health receives the planned amount for the reconstruction of the university centre. Everything remains the same as regards cultural institutions. The Ministry of Agriculture has twice as much money as before, primarily because of the irrigation system project, and the Ministry of Education received more money for the construction of educational centres. Speaking of the project of the Ministry of Labour on the creation of an information system to support social welfare affairs, the costs have been reduced, from over 600 million to less than 300 million. Nonetheless, a new project for infrastructure in the Danube region was awarded to the tourism sector, supported by around 700 million. The Ministry of Public Investment gets more money for educational facilities, while culture and local infrastructure will follow the original plan.
All this is included in only a dozen incredibly finely printed pages out of 248 pages of the budget and 222 pages of the budget rebalance. It was not unwarranted when in previous years, MPs not only discussed budgets as the sole agenda item but also requested double the time for the debate.
Why is a debate on laws necessary?
Because someone who is interested but not an expert, with the best intentions, wants these numbers to be explained. Perhaps there is a logical reason why costs have been reduced in some areas and increased in others. Without explanations, the budget, as it has been so far, remains non-transparent and unclear, raising questions about how decisions regarding projects were even made.
And we noticed another thing. There was a lot of talk about additional money for children’s treatment. In the budget for the year 2023, we found that 333,000,000 was planned for “Treatment of diseases, conditions or injuries that cannot be successfully treated in Serbia”, while the rebalancing increased that sum to 390,533,000 dinars, i.e. by less than 60 million, or a fifth of the cost of that information system for providing social assistance.
And what about the other laws?
These days, the only talk was about excise taxes, ever since the proposal from the government was sent to the Assembly occupying mere 12 pages. Following its adoption, the price of fuel, cigarettes, alcoholic beverages, coffee and liquids for filling electronic cigarettes will increase from October 1st. The media announced, the Assembly voted, and citizens will see it when it comes into force.
A 5.5 percent increase in pensions was adopted. This was heard dozens of times and everyone understood it. however, the Law on the Management of Business Companies Owned by the Republic of Serbia is understood only by those for whom it is intended.
MPs voted for another important law for all citizens, for changes to the Law on Road Traffic Safety, which introduces driverless ‘autonomous vehicles’ currently only for test purposes, but preparing for that advancement. In addition to bicycles, there are also ‘light electric vehicles’ that must not be operated by persons under the age of 14, who must wear a helmet and a vest, and occupy a space of one metre from the right edge of the roadway. Although there are some items about vintage and racing cars, driver’s licences and roadworthiness tests, the proponent did not provide the details.
Some changes were also adopted in the laws on dual education, educational inspection, the National Framework of Qualifications and higher education. A new law was passed on the participation of civilians in international missions and operations outside the borders of Serbia with the aim of “contributing to world peace, global, European and regional security, understanding and cooperation”.
In the amendments to the Law on Culture, a work plan is now drawn up for five and not ten years, and the “Endowment of the Holy Monastery of Hilandar” is included among the institutions that deserve special attention in addition to the Serbian Academy of Science and Arts, Vuk’s Endowment or Matica Srpska.”
When it comes to international agreements, loans, and protocol confirmations, there is rarely any discussion, even when the session proceeds as usual. So, when there were no discussions about the budget or the Law on Road Traffic Safety, it becomes a smaller issue with whom the state will cooperate in the field of civil protection, whom it will grant visa exemptions, or recognise driver’s licences...