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    • Security-Intelligence Services in the Western Balkans Should Be in Service of Citizens, Not Politicians

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    • Date: 20 December 2019

      In Serbia, there is no control of security-intelligence services in practice, and it is similar in Montenegro. The situation is very much alike to what led to the reform of services in North Macedonia five years ago, it was highlighted at a discussion organized by the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy (BCSP) on 20 December 2019 in Belgrade.

      BCSP Executive Director Predrag Petrovic emphasized that security-intelligence services oversight by the parliament and independent bodies in Serbia has long been lacking in practice.

      “There is no longer any kind of control over the security-intelligence services. We used to have a very active Ombudsman, who set an example not only in the Western Balkans but also in Europe. He conducted a very thorough control of the Security Intelligence Agency (BIA), and his report serves as an example of how to exercise that kind of control,” Petrovic explained.

      The situation in Serbia reminds of North Macedonia 5 years ago, when a scandal relating to the abuse of security-intelligence services to wiretap a lot of people surfaced. The security system is highly centralized, there are strong personal ties between the president and persons in power in the security-intelligence services, and there is almost no external oversight, Petrovic said.

      “There have always been people close to the ruling party in the security-intelligence services. But, a founder of the ruling party has never lead the BIA, as it is the case today - the current BIA Director Bratislav Gasic is one of the founders of the Serbian Progressive Party,” Petrovic pointed out.

      Before the reform of the security-intelligence services in North Macedonia in 2015, employees were connected both by party affiliation and family ties, explained Magdalena Lembovska of Eurothink - Center for European Strategies  from Skopje. She indicated that a system of control of the executive power, the courts and the media was built, which was in the service of one power centre.

      "The abuse of security-intelligence services in north Macedonia has been systemic. It was made possible by close ties of people in key positions, the capture of various parts of the state and the media, technical solutions and lack of external control,” Lembovska said.

      The reform of services in North Macedonia was initiated by citizens’ protests, with a major role played by the European Commission and the international community afterward. Technical capacities have been reformed and external control was strengthened, Lembovska explained.

      In Montenegro, a large number of institutions have the authority to control the security service - from the Ombudsman and the Personal Data Protection Agency to parliamentary committees, explained Dina Bajramspahic, researcher of the Institute Alternative  from Montenegro. Bajramspahic also cited the fearfulness of citizens, who believe they have no right to know about the work of security-intelligence services, as a big problem.

      “It is very difficult to deal with this topic when most of the public take for granted that it is normal for the intelligence sector to be non-transparent and it is normal for the intelligence sector to work only for the government. Some citizens are afraid to criticize the government because they think that someone is constantly observing them, who are afraid to go to protests because they think that someone is watching them,” Bajramspahic pointed out.

      If citizens do not have any information on the work of security-intelligence services, and thus no opportunity to participate in public discourse on defining security threats, this opens the door to overlapping interests of political elites and security-intelligence services, Bajramspahic concluded.

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