BIRN Montenegro and Civic Alliance Organize First Anti-Corruption Forum on Environment

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Speakers say authorities must cooperate with citizens who report corruption – and courts should impose tougher penalties for violations of environmental laws.

Photo: BIRN

Environmental corruption is one of the biggest challenges in Montenegro, it was said at the Anti-Corruption Forum Dedicated to Environmental Protection, organised by BIRN Montenegro and the Civic Alliance, held on March 6 in Podgorica.

Representatives of the executive and legislative authorities, environmentalists and journalists said all levels of authority should responsibly manage ecological resources in Montenegro, while inspection services must respond more promptly to reports of corruption in the field of the environment and process them indiscriminately.

The first anti-corruption forum in the country dedicated to the environment was held with the support of the US State Department as part of a multi-year initiative dedicated to the fight against corruption at local level.

Participants emphasized that local governments must cooperate with citizens who report corruption, and that the judiciary must be more up-to-date and set higher standards for sanctioning violations of environmental laws.

Deputy Prime Minister for the Political System, Justice and Anti-Corruption and President of the Anti-Corruption Council, Momo Koprivica, said environmental corruption is one of the biggest challenges that Montenegro is facing and that, in partnership with the civil sector, he will strengthen the fight against it.

“All proven forms of corruption will be prosecuted. We will provide full, not only declarative, support to the Special State Prosecutor’s Office. The most important way to fight environmental corruption is to fight against existing set-up regulations,” said Koprivica.

The executive director of BIRN Montenegro, Vuk Maras, said this was the last chance for the state to take the problem of environmental corruption seriously.

“For a year, together with our national partner Civic Alliance and six local partners – Boka News, Ul-Info, PV Portal, Expeditio, Ozon and Dr. Martin Snejder Jakob – we worked on issues of corruption in the field of environmental protection that directly affect citizens and communities in the specific areas,” he said.

“All the problems that were pointed out to us by citizens and communities have one thing in common – institutions that have failed and are not doing their job adequately,” Maras added.

He said that, during the project, 80 initiatives were submitted to inspections and competent authorities and requests for free access to information, as well as initiatives to the Assembly and ministries.

The program director of the Civic Alliance, Milan Radovic, said Montenegro has made some progress in the fight against corruption in the field of ecology, praising the Special State Prosecutor’s Office, which opened several significant proceedings.

“However, the situation is still worrying. All reports indicate that progress in this area is limited and that … received recommendations, especially from our partners from the EU, are mostly not implemented, or not fully implemented,” Radović said.

He said investigations and criminal prosecutions should be improved and final judgments should be reached.

At the panel, “The Role of the Media in the Fight Against Corruption in the Field of Environmental Protection,” interlocutors highlighted the importance of the new spatial plan, whose draft is up for public debate.

A representative of the Ministry of Spatial Planning, Urbanism, and State Property, Milica Abramovic, said that in the planning process, all plans were made available to the public for inspection. He denied that previous plans reflected the interests of investors and officials.

But the president of the Parliamentary Committee for Tourism, Agriculture, Ecology, and Spatial Planning, Dejan Djurovic, said the 2017 amendments to the Law on the Construction of Buildings and Spatial Planning were the worst law parliament ever voted for. Under it, direct assistance to investors is provided, he said.

UL-info journalist Admir Djoni said journalistic research has pointed to the destruction of the environment. “How can we explain that we made underwater containers from the seabed in Ulcinj and so risked the lives of fish and marine organisms, and therefore our lives as well?” Djoni asked.

“How to describe the dumping of waste in the hinterland of Velika Plaža, which is later set on fire, in order not to pay to the local utility company?” he added.

Member of the Parliamentary Anti-corruption Committee and former Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic said some non-governmental organisations were more engaged in environmental protection than state bodies. He emphasized that the government he led had hundreds of complaints against environmental crime, and that the prosecutor’s office did not process a single one.

“When some investor wants to invest money, he has to obtain construction permits from various state institutions, which opens up space for corruption. The moment we have on paper what is an industrial zone, what is a protected zone, and what is a tourist zone, then there will be less room for corruption,” Abazovic maintained.

The Director of the Environmental Protection Agency, Milan Gazdic, said the greatest space for corruption exists in major environmental problems like waste management.

“We cannot base development on a hotel in a national park. That is the wrong way. We have no infrastructure, yet we are building a hotel in a national park that is accessed by a narrow road, which is unacceptable. We have parts of the state and urban areas where development can be based, but not in protected areas,” he added.

At the conference, it was also said that the government and parliament must start determining the responsibility of state bodies and institutions for ignoring environmental problems.