Recent protests by war veterans in Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina show that the issue of how states in the former Yugoslavia treat those who fought in the 1990s conflicts remains a highly sensitive and often controversial issue, and that the rights and benefits granted to ex-fighters remain at the core of disputes between veterans and governments.
Veterans from the 1990s wars in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo and Serbia are set to receive an estimated 685.8 million euros in benefits 2018, but while veterans’ associations have gained political influence in some of these countries, many ex-fighters are still struggling to achieve what they see as their basic rights.
Kosovo’s government set aside 77.8 million euros for the pensions of former fighters in 2018 – a significant amount in a state budget of only 1.8 billion euros – but thousands of people are alleged to have been falsely registered as veterans.
In Croatia, where veterans’ associations have achieved a measure of political influence, the state set aside 174 million euros in 2018 for former soldiers, but they still struggle to get access to psychosocial care that they need to address problems with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Serbia set aside around 114 million euros for ‘disabled veterans’ care’ in its 2018 budget, but its ex-soldiers complain that the state has still not passed a law regulating their official status, almost 20 years since the last war of the 1990s ended.
The authorities in Bosnia’s two political entities, the mostly-Serb Republika Srpska and the Bosniak- and Croat- dominated Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, say that they pay veterans and their family members 150 and 170 million euros each year respectively.
Bosnia: meagre benefits and alleged fraud
|Bosnian veterans have demanded higher benefits and a register of former fighters. Photo: Fehim Demir/EPA.|
Bosnia has no state-level law on war veterans, whose status is instead regulated by the country’s two entities, Republika Srpska and the Federation.
Some 60,000 Bosnian Serb Army veterans in Republika Srpska are entitled to a monthly pension of 200 euros, while the average salary in the entity is just over 400 euros. On top of that, they receive an annual veteran’s pension calculated on the basis of 1.35 euros for each month spent in the army during the 1992-95 war.
The Federation’s War Veterans Ministry said earlier this year that it is paying benefits to 95,000 individuals – 48,000 people who became disabled during the war, 42,000 family members of killed veterans and 5,000 bearers of the highest military decorations.
Veterans from the Bosniak-dominated Bosnian Army and the Bosnian Croat wartime force, the Croatian Defence Council, staged protests in September demanding more benefits, the identification of beneficiaries who have falsely claimed veteran status and the establishment of a unified registry of those who fought.
The veterans are demanding 326 Bosnian marks (about 167 euros) per month in benefits for unemployed veterans, and additional two or three marks (one to 1.5 euros) for each month served during wartime.
Earlier this year, the Federation entity parliament was due to adopt a law that would meet the veterans’ demands, but so far it has not done so.
“We [war veterans] only want what is fair – those who [falsified] their participation in the war cannot have benefits while those who gave the best years of their life for Bosnia aren’t receiving anything,” Hamza Krkalic, one of the veterans who supported the protests, told BIRN.
Veterans in the Federation have also criticised the entity’s policy of funding a large number of veterans’ associations, arguing that this only benefits the people in charge of the associations and does little to improve ex-soldiers’ standards of living.
Croatia: perks for veterans’ families criticised
|Croatian veterans at a protest in 2015. Photo: Antonio Bat/EPA.|
The European Commission criticised Croatia’s Homeland War Veterans’ Law in its 2018 annual report on the country because it increased pensions and gave additional social benefits to former fighters.
“The authorities have proposed to further extend the benefits granted to war veterans and their family members, resulting in further increases of their pension ceilings. Little progress has been made to support war veterans’ reintegration into the labour market,” the report said.
The law, passed in 2017, also gave Croatian veterans and the children of killed or unemployed veterans an advantage over other candidates when applying for jobs in the public sector, which attracted criticism domestically.
But Zorica Greguric, president of Zagreb’s Volunteer Defenders of Vukovar Association, one of 1,350 organisations representing veterans’ interests in Croatia, insisted that the European Commission’s comments were about the pension system reform in general, not about the additional benefits for ex-soldiers.
“There is a large media fuss about two sentences [in the European Commission report] that cannot be objectively understood as criticism,” Greguric told BIRN.
Political analyst Zarko Puhovski said that it is understandable that people who saw combat get special treatment, medical and psychosocial help, but criticised the government’s policy of extending benefits to their children.
“Why should a child who lost his or her father in the war be considered worse off than a child whose father was killed in a car accident?” Puhovski told BIRN.
He said that in Croatia, veterans have gained political influence that has won them privileges and the opportunity to exert pressure on the authorities.
Croatian veterans’ organisations have often sought to leverage this political influence. They were at the forefront of protests in 2013 against the introduction of bilingual Croatian and Serbian signs in Latin and Cyrillic script on official buildings in the wartime flashpoint town of Vukovar, and staged a high-profile 18-month long sit-in demanding the resignation of the government’s veterans’ minister, which ended in April 2016.
Former Croatian Defence Council fighters have also been at the centre of continuing controversy over the use of the WWII-era Ustasa fascist salute ‘Za dom spremni’.
Kosovo: protests over ‘fake veterans’ indictment
|A Kosovo veteran waves an Albanian flag during a protest in 2015. Photo: Valdrin Xhemaj/EPA.|
Former high-ranking Kosovo Liberation Army members remain the dominant force in the country, and many became politicians after the 1998-99 war, including current President Hashim Thaci and Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj.
Kosovo’s Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare, which is in charge of allocating pensions, told BIRN that its September payroll included 33,184 veterans who each receive around 2,000 euros annually.
A controversy broke out this summer when a prosecutor alleged that more than 19,000 people have fraudulently managed to get themselves registered as veterans, in an attempt to attain coveted ‘freedom fighter’ status within Kosovo society as well as to get a lifelong pension and other institutional benefits.
In August, Special Prosecutor Elez Blakaj, who investigated the case, said he was forced to resign and go into exile in the US because he had received threats over the case.
Blekaj had conducted a two-year investigation which was initiated after the government published a report listing 46,230 individuals who served as part of the guerrilla force in the 1998-99 conflict with Serbian forces.
NGOs and war veterans’ organisations in Pristina raised concerns that the figure had been inflated.
In several public statements, former Kosovo Liberation Army leaders had previously maintained that the guerrilla force never had more than 15,000 members.
Blekaj said that “the state budget and genuine veterans have been seriously damaged” by the verifications of people who did not actually fight in the war.
When Blakaj quit, he left a ready-made indictment, which was then filed in September by another prosecutor, but with 2,000 additional names of alleged fake veterans on it.
Twelve members of the government commission that verified veterans were indicted, including its head Agim Ceku, a former KLA commander and former Kosovo Security Forces minister.
KLA veterans’ association were angered by the indictment. Some staged protests, calling on the government to start a new process of verification of veterans and demanding that the prosecution withdraw the charges.
When veterans staged a protest in September against the indictment, Avdyl Mushkolaj, a former KLA fighter from the guerrilla force’s Dukagjini Zone, which was commanded by current Prime Minister Haradinaj, warned that the next protests “will not be peaceful” if the prosecution does not withdraw the accusations.
Serbia: pensions denied to 1990s fighers
|Serbian veterans on hunger strike in 2007. Photo: Koca Sulejmanovic/EPA.|
Unlike countries that have encountered problems with fake veterans, many ex-soldiers’ organisations in Serbia complain that not even genuine former fighters can claim pensions.
The president of the Serbian War Veterans’ Association, Mile Milosevic, said that the state is ignoring its demand for the passing of a law that will regulate ex-soldiers’ status.
“We have no right to pensions or anything. We don’t exist for the state,” Milosevic told BIRN.
Throughout the 1990s, the Serbian leadership insisted that Serbia did not participate in the wars in Bosnia and Croatia.
Milosevic explained that Serbia now pays benefits only to disabled veterans and former active soldiers of the former Yugoslav People’s Army, but not to reservists and volunteers.
“[The authorities’] explanation is that there is no law on [those] veterans,” he said.
Milosevic said that it was even more important that the 350,000 Serbian participants in the 1990s wars who his association estimates are still alive have no access to the army’s medical facilities, such as the Military Medical Academy in Belgrade.
As well as not recognising Serbia’s participation in the Bosnian and Croatian wars, the Belgrade authorities also have a specific problem with veterans from the Kosovo war.
After the end of the Kosovo war in 1999, the government withheld payment of daily allowances owed to veterans until many of them staged protests in 2008, demanding that the arrears be paid.
The Serbian government ultimately paid out two billion dinars (around 25 million euros in 2008) but only to veterans from seven southern municipalities who were protesting, which angered former fighters nationwide.
Thousands of veterans ended up suing Serbia at the European Court of Human Rights and won in the first instance in 2012, but the verdict was overturned on appeal in 2014 because the plaintiffs did not use all the legal remedies available in Serbia, according to the Strasbourg court.
Former fighters have continued to sue the country before Serbian courts for discriminating against them by only paying the veterans who protested.
In many cases, courts have ruled in their favour, but only awarded them small amounts of compensation instead of ordering the state to pay the daily allowances.
Disgruntled with their overall status some veterans staged a protest inside the Serbian parliament in June, but a representative for the ruling majority said they were being used for political purposes.
“The government… will continue to help disabled war veterans, but it seems to me that they have been the victims of political manipulation,” said Aleksandar Martinovic, leader of the ruling Progressive Party parliamentary group.
Meanwhile there is no official data on exactly how much Serbia owes the veterans because of differing estimates of the number of participants in the Kosovo war and Yugoslavia’s conflict with NATO. Each veteran could be entitled to just under 2,300 euros.
Some veterans’ associations set the number at about 100,000, which would put the total owed by the authorities at around 230 million euros. Mile Milosevic however estimates that there were as many as 250,000 participants in the 1999 Kosovo war, which would mean that the Serbian authorities have a much larger bill to settle.