All controversial issues in the purchase of 710 vehicles with a value of 6 million Euros for the Serbian Ministry of Interior.
By Vladimir Erceg, Nemanja Nenadić and Saša Đorđević / Photo: YouTube
The Serbian Ministry of Interior (MoI) has to declare what is crucial for security in the procurement of 710 vehicles. If not, the public has all the rights to remain suspicious, especially since previously there were no “secret” purchases of cars for the police.
The scenario was written. The camera was turned on. The drone took off. Above Belgrade, a “high-risk” event is being recorded from an aerial view: 710 police vehicles worth 6 million Euros. The salutation of police officers is rehearsed. A speech by the Minister of the Interior is ready. However, deliberately or not, answers to important questions have been omitted. How the vehicles were procured and why were they exactly Skoda? How much did they cost? What are the conditions of a guarantee? How has the maintenance been arranged? The citizens have the right to know how their money is being spent.
The audience is divided. Some are excited. The others are relieved, as they finally have new vehicles. Some are asking questions, whilst the “scenarists” are preparing the answers. The State Secretary in the MoI looks for the questions to answer and the right way to deliver these answers. He says that the vehicles had been procured in accordance with the decision made by Government in relation to the Article 128 of the Law on Public Procurements, which regulates the procurements in the fields of security and defense. In other words, the State Secretary claims that the new police vehicles had been procured in a confidential procedure. He does not offer an explanation of what this means nor why any other procedure was excluded. The readers are left to believe that it had to be this way since it is the police that is conducting the purchase.
The rebuilding of the police vehicle fleet was needed. But this does not justify the decision on the “secret” procurement, made by the Government, primarily because the previous similar procurements were made public. Throughout this year, the MoI conducted a procurement of vehicles for the Border Police, where both the number of vehicles and their characteristics were known well in advance: engine operating from 1,950 to 2,000 cc, engine power 140 to 145 kilowatts, 4,850 to 4,900 mm length, and wheelbase from 2,800 to 2,850 mm. For some cars, a climate-controlled three-way air conditioning, a radio player that reads MP3 files, a USB port, cruise control, leather seats with heaters, trunks with electrical opening and closing were required.
It remains unclear how the publishing of data relating to the procurement of patrol vehicles would jeopardize security. One can, sooner or later, learn about almost everything about the cars – from the conversations with police officers, during the servicing or the reparation of the vehicles. In addition, these are patrol cars, not security-sensitive equipment. Moreover, information about vehicle specifications used by police from other countries, as well as about vehicle equipment, can easily be found. A specialized American journal named Police explained and tested the Dodge police car in detail. Australian police have released all details of the Holden and Ford patrol vehicles, from the engine characteristics, via radar, cameras, to emergency equipment and license plate readers. This year, when the leasing expired, the Croatian Public Procurement Administration announced a tender to which seven leasing companies applied and everything was known.
It is currently not possible to conclude why Skoda was selected and not any other vehicle. Although it has been told that Skoda Rapid had been purchased, there were also some Octavias to be seen at the promotional video of the MoI. The State Secretary in the Ministry of Interior revealed that Skoda Rapid had been purchased due to the most favorable offer of this particular manufacturer and stated that the other bidders, Fiat and Peugeot, did not complain about the procedure. Still, it is not possible to conclude as to why the offer coming from Skoda appears to be the most favorable or to understand why other manufacturers had not been invited. Also, the citizens do not know whether the maintenance of the vehicle had been accounted for by the Ministry of Interior, which requires additional money, and they do not know the terms of the guarantee, or the price of the individual vehicle. As the Director of the Serbian police would say: “You must trust the Serbian police”.
Based on the budget and the statement of the State Secretary, it is possible to conclude that 6 million Euros have been allocated for the renewal of the fleet, which according to the rough calculation means that one Skoda Rapid car costs about 7,700 EUR. Such an amount is favorable given that on average the price of this car ranges from 11,000 to 14,000 Euros in retail. The British and the Slovenian police are satisfied with Skoda they had purchased. However, the dilemmas that affect the Serbian case are pertinent to the confidentiality and conditions in accordance with which the procurement had been conducted, the guarantee, and the maintenance of the vehicles. These altogether influence the final costs.
Owing to aforementioned, a debate was initiated within the public about a potentially more profitable procurement of domestic vehicles manufactured by Fiat, adding that the Italian, Polish and Turkish police use these exact vehicles. Moreover, according to the Law on Public Procurement, there is a preferential of 5%, which gives preference to purchases of goods of domestic origin, giving an advantage to the domestic factory that would, according to the opinion of some economists, be justified by indirect benefits to the state, through paid taxes, contributing thus to the stimulation of domestic consumption. Similarly, the US government signed a contract with the US company Ford, when the sales of their vehicles fell, by which Ford was entrusted to deliver vehicles to the US federal agencies.
In the absence of the information, it is not possible to discern whether the citizens of Serbia have acquired the best patrol vehicles for the funds allocated by the budget and whether the arrangement with Fiat as a domestic company would be more favorable in the long run. The Serbian public, which has been faced many times with frauds when carrying out secret procurements, has many reasons not to trust the Government that the confidentiality of the acquisition of patrol vehicles was necessary. For example, we can remind to the secrets of furniture procurement for Security Intelligence Agency (BIA).
In order to remove suspicions and convince the public that the purchase of the vehicles was carried out in the interests of the citizens, the MoI and the Government must present documents or at least parts thereof on the basis of which it could be concluded whether there was a legal basis for the procurement to be secret. The terms of the vehicle maintenance should be presented, and a price paid per vehicle should be provided. This is not the end, as the Ministry should provide a report to the Assembly’s Committee on Defense and Internal Affairs on the implemented procurement in the field of defense and security. The deadline is 31 of March of the following year, but there are no impediments to doing it earlier.
It is certain that the Law on Public Procurement will be amended and this should be used to improve the control of confidential procurement. For example, a report to the Assembly on procurement in the field of security and defense should contain an explanation as of why the acquisition was declared secret. In the case where it is stated that the implementation of the public procurement procedure would have led to the disclosure of information considered crucial for security, there should be at least adequate parliamentary control of the Government. Additional controls could include an obligation to engage the State Audit Office, at least for purchases over a certain value. It would be even of greater importance that the justification for carrying out a confidential procedure is checked beforehand before the potential damage occurs. Such changes will help the police to increase the confidence of the citizens it seeks to protect.
The article was originally published in the weekly magazine NIN in Serbian. Translated by Katarina Anđelković.