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When a state anti-corruption committee accuses a former government of selling a major national asset at a knockdown price in a shadowy way, not protecting creditors’ interests, and leaving vast debts to be paid off by ordinary Serbs, it could represent a huge political boost to the former opposition.

But Vojislav Kostunica, Serbia’s new prime minister, has not been enjoying much vindication. He may have won election in December partly on an anti-corruption ticket, but the report on the sale of Serbia’s largest steel producer, Sartid, has added to, rather than reduced, his political difficulties. For the council has practically accused Kostunica and his team of abandoning the fight against corruption by being unwilling to reverse Sartid’s sale.

The Anti-Corruption Council has focused intently on the Sartid case the most obvious recent example of corruption. For many Serbs, too, the Sartid deal appeared an obvious and sordid case of corruption. Sartid had long needed some change: under Slobodan Milosevic, output had fallen and debts had mounted. Frequently cited media figures put the total debts at $1.7 billion, though a large chunk of the money need never be repaid as some loans were extended by Serbian banks that no longer exist.

But the change came a little too suddenly for many people. The world’s second-largest steel producer, LMN Holding, had expressed interest in the company. The company’s creditors, most importantly German and Austrian banks, had their own favorite contenders. But then the company was put into bankruptcy proceedings, which under Serbian law of the time meant no tender was needed. The consortium of Austrian and German banks wrote several times to the Serbian authorities, demanding that their interests be protected, which, in practice meant that their loans should be settled before the company could be sold. (With interest included, the debt they provided Sartid in 1997 is now worth about $120 million) The German economics minister, Wolfgang Klement, weighed in. But within months, Sartid and its six major subsidiaries had been sold to U.S. Steel. The sale of two of the subsidiaries took just four days.

As one of the world’s largest steel producers and after having transformed a major steelworks in eastern Slovakia, U.S. Steel would certainly have had a fighting chance in any tender. But there was no tender, and the terms of the sales looked bad to most Serbs. No investor would have been willing to take on Sartid’s huge debts, so the state’s promise to free Sartid of all its debts could be seen as understandable. But for ordinary Serbs, the idea that the assets of the country’s largest steelmaker and one of the country’s major companies could be sold for $21.3 million was not understandable. True, U.S. Steel promised to invest $150 million over three years, but for ordinary Serbs it seemed incredible that the residual value of the company had fallen to just $21.3 million.

Nor was the credibility of the valuation bolstered either by the bankruptcy receiver’s failure to provide an explanation or by the identity of the valuer, Deloitte & Touche, whose previous boss was the minister responsible for the sale, Aleksandar Vlahovic. Nor did it help that the receiver, the Belgrade Commercial Court, had been involved in several corruption cases. (Two of its judges have recently been arrested for taking bribes.)

The timing, not just the speed, also contributed to the unsavory taste left by the privatization: the sale came in March 2003, in the midst of the state of emergency that followed the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, at a time when the public’s attention was distracted by the crackdown on organized crime.

There was, then, a deep well of suspicion about the privatization that Kostunica could tap into. He did, and his anti-corruption message was one of the messages most clearly heard by voters.

(TOL 06.viii.04)

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