Serbia has introduced a new law on school textbooks after heavy lobbying by German publishers and politicians. The measure is likely to increase profits for publishers, but critics say it opens the door to corruption.
"The new law, if implemented, would make us consider cancelling all our activities in Serbia," read a letter by Phillip Haussmann, head of German publishing giant Klett, that was sent to Serbia's then-prime minister and now president, Aleksandar Vucic, in 2015. The letter was arguing against legislation to reform Serbia's costly textbook system.
Haussmann argued that if Klett were to leave Serbia, hundreds of jobs would be lost, which would send a bad signal to other investors. He also reminded Vucic of an earlier conversation that he supposedly had in Stuttgart, in which the Serbian leader is said to have promised to amend the law.
At the time, then-Education Minister Srdjan Verbic put forth legislation to allow teachers to pick their textbooks every four years instead of every year. He also wanted to introduce fixed prices. In addition to that, Verbic wanted to put an end to the practice of publishers — Klett most of all — trying to win over teachers with expensive gifts and trips. It wasn't unusual to influence educators by giving them a tablet "for schoolwork" or to invite them to textbook presentations in exotic locales.
Klett is believed to account for roughly half of the €50 million ($58 million) worth of textbooks sold in Serbia every year, largely because it has been acquiring Serbian publishers.
German EU parliamentarians involved
Haussmann's letter was brought to light last week through research conducted by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN). Trade Minister Rasim Ljajic also recently confirmed that he was approached about the issue by Germany's ambassador to Serbia at the time.
At the request of Klett, German EU-parliamentarian David McAllister sent a letter to the EU committee in Belgrade's parliament. "I was told that the planned change of law could potentially violate the laws of free competition," McAllister clarified in writing when asked.
'I'm not crazy'
Former Education Minister Verbic said there were massive "pressure, threats and intimidation attempts" from some publishers. He made a statement in February 2016 to the Anti-Corruption Agency that was sent to the general prosecutor, who decided five months later that the publishers didn't break any laws.
Klett boss Haussmann said that his company always stayed within the law and merely wanted to make its position heard. "That is hardly ever as necessary as it was in Serbia," Haussmann told BIRN. "But I definitely didn't threaten anybody, since I'm not crazy."
The original law made it through parliament in September 2015. But the changes called for by the publishers weren't far behind. In Serbia's 2016 elections, Vucic's Serbian Progressive Party won a large majority and Verbic lost his post as education minister.
In February of this year, his successor attended a Klett textbook presentation together with Prime Minister Ana Brnabic. In April, the contested law was changed. Now teachers can request that students purchase new textbooks every year again — and they are officially allowed to accept "small" gifts, but there's no definition for what counts as small.
Parents under pressure
Many parents in Serbia struggle to afford the high costs of new textbooks. Students and parents are expected to pay for them out of their own pockets, and one set can cost up to €200, depending on which publishers' offer a teacher accepts.
That's a lot for a country in which four out of five workers make less than €400 per month after taxes. And with textbooks changing from year to year, older children can't pass down their books to their younger siblings.
"Maybe it was my political inexperience, but I was deeply disappointed by the European officials I talked to about the textbook law," Verbic told DW. "Instead of focusing on education, they were always talking about 'foreign investments' and 'free markets.' That wasn't normal for me."
He believes the initial legislation was a good opportunity to reign in textbook prices. "But apparently, that can't be done," Verbic said. "In the end, the law that was rated good by all independent institutions was replaced with a new one that these institutions find unacceptable."
It's not the first time that laws in Serbia were likely altered after lobbying by German business interests. Government critics claim that in 2014, labor laws were changed to appease Western European investors who find cheap labor in Serbia and receive high subsidies from the state.