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Srbija 2020

How May I Help You? I’ll do what I can….

I’m getting increasingly worried about the moderate credentials of the prosperous Anglo-Saxon protestant society that nurtured, educated and employed me. For example, it seems to me that many ‘mature’ communities of the ‘advantaged’ world, not least the community of the news media, are diminished by widespread cynicism, by the almost universal absence of trust of anybody for anything, a phenomenon which manifests itself in all sorts of unpleasant ways. And then there are the big things. Things that rich and / or powerful nations do not because it’s right but because they can, like the probably illegal attack by a powerful and unscrupulous nation on another sovereign country, at the behest of a head of state whose IQ is about equal to his shoe size. (Please make your choice of a sovereign nation and a head of state as appropriate).

But despite their apparently endemic cynicism, I thank goodness for the news media of the Western world – because for all their many faults, they’re probably the only thing which guarantees the accountability of people with power and privilege. And because stories about public service inefficiency or wrongdoing are almost bound to find their way into the news, many public organisations have been forced with varying success, to put their houses in order.

Recently, and maybe it has something to do with the news media here, it seems to me that accountability in the public services is an area where Serbian officials and the news media may have something to learn. True, a service ethos is not always the first thing you notice when you encounter a New York cop (‘…excuse me, can you tell me the way to…’ ‘…No - buy a map!), or a British immigration officer (‘…excuse me, can you tell me how I can…’ ‘…No – Next!), but if you are really pissed off by the offending bureaucrat’s reaction, at the very least you can write a letter to the newspaper or write a blog. If you have the stamina, the evidence and an awful lot of spare time then it’s just possible that you might even be able to have the offender formally called to account.

But not I suspect, in the Serbian public services. Let me give you an example from my own experience, of a public servant who might benefit from some formal ‘advice’. Where I live, there’s a local government office with which I’ve had some business recently. It’s not complicated business, nothing to do with visas or work permits or stuff like that. Just simple local authority business that will presumably benefit the Opstina because they’ll get a small amount of money from me and it will help me because… well, perhaps it might be better not to say what I was asking for – but trust me, it was very simple. To help set the scene more fully, you should know that on the door of this particular public office is a notice clearly telling all who might be interested that the occupants’ hours of business are from 0800 to 1600.

So, duly informed, I presented myself at the office at 3.15pm on a pleasant Wednesday in late February. I was confident that my business could be rapidly concluded to the mutual benefit of all concerned. Not so. After some moments wheezing my way through the fog of tobacco smoke (I do enjoy a bit of passive smoking occasionally, but there are limits), I stumbled eventually on the relevant bureaucrat. Hopefully, I offered him my carefully collated, neatly filed and accurately indexed bundle of documents. All documents required by law or regulation to be endorsed with an official blue stamp were so endorsed. All documents previously returned to me for correction or replacement or to be copied in triplicate, each copy to have its own official blue stamp had been corrected, replaced, copied and or stamped and all, I hoped, was well. Our business could proceed.

But no, it could not. My offering was greeted with that look of studied indifference only encountered among hardened bureaucrats and this guy was a real pro. He then managed, even through the limited visibility, to give me a look which suggested there was a nasty smell in the room and that I was probably the source – and he declined to accept my documents. Instead, he reached into the fog for his coat and announced that the office had closed. Naively, I reminded him that it was a quarter past three and that on the door it says the office closes at 1600.

The smell it seems suddenly got worse and to his look of contempt was added that peculiarly Balkan shrug of the shoulders. You know the one, the gesture that Clark Gable put so eloquently into words; “Frankly … I don’t give a damn”! Pressing on regardless, I asked why the office was not closing at the proper time and I was told that the computers had been turned off. That, apparently, was that. I toyed with the idea of asking why the computers had been turned off forty five minutes before closing time, but I realised that continued questioning of this man who would ultimately process my request might be more than a little reckless. Anyway, I’d be unlikely to find out anything useful and it was by now getting quite hard to breathe so I simply asked if he would be kind enough to take my documents and if all was in order, to process them for me. If all was not in order then of course, he could telephone me and I would immediately drop everything and rush to his office, once more to put right my errors. Unfortunately, he did not see the logic of my proposal. Again, he ignored my bundle of documents and as I followed him from the room, he told me to come again on Monday morning. Why Monday? Why not tomorrow? But he was gone. It was 3.21pm

A defining feature, maybe the defining feature, of a culture is the set of values shared by a community. In an ideal culture which values service to the public, then ‘public servants’ such as Government employees, people who work for local authorities, schoolteachers, ministers of state, university law lecturers, police officers, providers of telephones, gas, electricity and so on, will always make the needs of those they serve their first priority. The alternatives are service to the organisation or to the state (which may be the same thing) or self serving self-interest.

Where there is no ethos of service to individual members of the public (in ‘Westspeak’ – the Consumers or the Customers), how and to whom can a public servant be called to account for their inefficiency or misdeeds? Even if there is an ethos of service to the Organisation or the to the State, real accountability can exist only if the activities of the Organisation or state are genuinely regarded as being in the interests of those who may be disadvantaged by its inefficiency or wrongdoing. Otherwise, it might be in a lot of public servants’ interests to ignore inefficiency or dishonesty and to obstruct individuals’ attempts to make officials accountable.

Then there’s self-interest. I’ve been told there’s a tradition of corruption here extending to all levels of public service, and both the news reports and my own experience tend to support the allegation. For example, I’ve been told that I’m likely to get what I want from the Opstina much more quickly and easily (not so many blue stamps perhaps?) if I‘m prepared to give someone a ‘present’. My reply, “…what, you mean a box of chocolates or something…?” was greeted with considerable amusement! Where corruption is endemic, experience has shown just how difficult it is to act decisively against it. But of course, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

But corruption is not just about giving and receiving ‘presents’. Of course that’s wrong but so are the corruption of privilege and the corruption of power. At first glance, there may be little in common between an unlawful attack by a powerful nation on a weaker sovereign state and a bureaucrat who turns off the computer and goes home early. But consider this; in both cases maybe these things were done because there was nothing to prevent it. Neither the powerful nation nor the lowly bureaucrat was truly accountable. They did what they did because they could – not because it was right.

Eh, Andrew.

Somebody - conceivably Shakespeare - said: "Let's start a revolution. Let's begin by killing all the lawyers". Well, I often think of revolution in those terms, with bureaucrats on my mind.
Without trying to defend sorry situation in Serbia, the problem seems to be endemic and universal. In Germany, say, bureaucracy is enormous, but finite; you eventually get what you want. In Serbia, it is infinite, and impossible. In places like India, it is not bureaucracy but chaos that rules. If, for instance, by some miracle, everybody in Mumbay suddently started obeying traffic rules, the traffic would come to a complete halt, never to be restarted again. It's that bad.
So, my unsolicited advice is: get to know the guy, or to know somebody who knows the guy (technical term for this is "connection" - veza), or invite him for a drink - then things will work out, somehow.

If this is the case:

behest of a head of state whose IQ is about equal to his shoe size

it may be of some interest to you that I live in a big country with a president whose I.Q. is the size of a decent earthquake - about 8.


Well, you know "who knows what's that good for". :)

A question of priorities

Well, at least out bureaucrats do not bomb other people nor do they torture them in secret prisons...

Oh, I guess they spend much

Oh, I guess they spend much of their time sitting in their offices, drinking coffees and reading "Kurir" but more active public servants kill (they don't really bomb,you're right, they prefer shotguns), rape and torture- with unprecedented brutality.

I'm not at all surprised by

I'm not at all surprised by your experience 3.15 (shouldnt that be 15.30?) when the closing time is at 4 is a definate no-no when dealing with anybody employed in the state sector - including Government officials.

Another rather curious habit, is the idea that things begin working from the crack of dawn. Thus you get shops opening at 8 o'clock in the morning when there are no customers, plumbers turning up at a similar time (when he told you between 8-12) and Belgrades central heating system is switched on halfway through the night about 4.45 AM.

Bear in mind though that turning up early wont work when dealing with appointments with doctors and other state employed officials at the opstina. The elderly, who remember a time when it was normal to wake up at 5.30 in the morning, have a habit of turning up far earlier than you ever will be able to.

Always arm yourself with a carton of coffee. It may not seem like much but it does help - it might be received even more happily by a middle aged lady who will be pleased you know some of the customs. On the other hand she may just take offence!

Above all just try to remember the equivallent service you are dealing with. Think British Rail in the 1980's or the post office in a similar area in an area with a lot of elderly people. You wait and wait and then are served by somebody who behaves as if they are doing you a favour, not being paid to do a job.

And bear something else in mind too. At least some of the people you are dealing with are scared they will lose their jobs when the axe is swung. Not that the least able will be sacked you understand, no it will likely be arbitrary.
Thus they have little incentive to work or be happy about working.


But despite their apparently endemic cynicism, I thank goodness for the news media of the Western world – because for all their many faults, they’re probably the only thing which guarantees the accountability of people with power and privilege.

Close enough. Still, I like better:

...people with the illusion of power and privilege.

No.thanks !

There is nobody at the whole earth who can help us.
We are perfectly happy heavenly nation with out any needs at all.

But anyway thank you and plese don't forget to ask some other people may be there is need.


although there is some truth to the "nobody can help us" part, or so it seems, these last 100 years...
Anyways, I truly hope you managed to do what you intended at the opstina! Trust me, most of the time, their behaviour is just as confusing for us that don't need a translator...

Corruption is an art

While living in Zimbabwe, I was musing on the correct approach to bribing a Government Official with a fellow expat who complained that getting something done is always "just so difficult". Difficult, because "bribing officials in Zimbabwe was a bit of a shoot and miss exercise", where "you never know how many officials you need to bribe to get a single thing done" and "not like in Yemen, where you only do it once, with the lowest rung 'friend' and he takes care of the whole vertical line of 'friends'".

Of course, there will always be a Zimbabwe to compare our country to, but at least they keep to their office hours.