Discrimination suffered by Croatian Serbs in obtaining access to employment, pensions, and other retirement benefits has for many served as an additional powerful deterrent to return to Croatia. As detailed in the following discussion, the Croatian government has in many cases been responsible for the discriminatory treatment of Croatian Serbs, and it has generally failed to combat it.
Discrimination In Employment
One of the principal impediments to return lies is the bleak economic situation in the country. The unemployment rate is around 20 percent. A war-ravaged economy and post-war crony capitalism have made Croatia a country in which “preconditions for transformation of the economy into a viable one were better in 1990 than in 2000.”296
Further complicating the sustainability of return is the fact that many Serbs lived in economically disadvantaged areas before the war, or in remote areas in which former communist governments built factories based on political, rather than economic, considerations.297 Even where pre-war employment was high and the economy was functioning, unemployment has been skyrocketing in the post-war period. In Knin for example, out of 30,000 current inhabitants only 3,000 held paid positions in 2001.298 In nearby Kistanje, where about 700 people worked before the war, in 2001 there were about forty employed individuals, mostly administrative staff at the municipality.299 In Gracac, 90 percent of able-bodied persons were registered as unemployed at the beginning of 2001.300 Immediate economic recovery in such areas is unlikely, and employment opportunities for potential young returnees are scant, unless the person is willing to engage in agriculture or cattle raising, or if he speaks a foreign language and finds employment with an international organization working on returns in the area.
Bosko Raskovic, a man in his mid-thirties whose family returned to the village of Raskovici, near Knin, in August 2001, told Human Rights Watch at the time that bleak employment prospects were his main concern. He had to support the family and fund the education of his two daughters, but he had spent his last pennies on obtaining various types of Croatian identity documents.301 When Human Rights Watch again visited the village in June 2002, Bosko Raskovic and his family had returned to Serbia.
Employment discrimination on ethnic grounds is difficult to prove since unemployment among Croats is also high. A number of returnees told Human Rights Watch, however, that they were explicitly told that they could not get a job because of their ethnicity.
Boja Gajica (53), a Serb returnee to Knin, applied eight times between 1996 and 2000 for the position of nursing attendant, for which she has an associate degree.302 Each time a Croat candidate, with lower or different qualifications, was selected.303 On one occasion, the manager of a child-care center allegedly told Ms. Gajica that she would be afraid of the local soldiers and policemen if she employed a Serb.304
Ljupce Mandic (55), from Kistanje near Knin, holds an M.S. in electrical engineering and worked in the Knin power supply company before the war. When he made inquiries about reinstatement to his previous job, he was told that “your side lost the war and you can’t come back.” Mandic continues to work in Serbia, while his wife splits her time between Kistanje and Belgrade.305
In some instances it is clear that ethnic affiliation is the determining factor in employment practices. In Sibenik county, to which Knin belongs, the county prefect for educational issues has allegedly made public statements that Serb teachers would not get jobs (allocated by the county council).306 An unemployed Serb graduate in economics, who applied for fifteen vacancies in Western Slavonia 1995-97, told Human Rights Watch that at the job interviews he was often asked whether he took part in the Homeland War as a defender.307 As it was overwhelmingly the Croats, and not the Serbs, who fought in the Croatian army against Serb rebels, giving priority to defenders clearly discriminates against Serb applicants.
Human Rights Watch also interviewed returnees who unsuccessfully applied for jobs even though they were the most qualified or the only qualified candidates, as measured by the requirements from the job announcements. The employers in these cases decided to annul the announcements rather than hire the competent Serb applicants. In January 2003, Dusan Karanovic, an occupational safety engineer with fifteen years work experience, applied for a position as chief of the town’s fire brigade in nearby Knin. According to Karanovic, the staff of the Knin employment agency informed him that he was the only candidate who had passed the state exam, which was required by the job announcement. In March, however, the Knin town hall notified Karanovic that the job announcement had been cancelled.308 Seka Tica, an economist with a university degree, applied in June 2002 for a post at the Korenica branch of the Karlovacka Bank. The job announcement specified that the candidate had to have a degree in economics. In July the Bank notified Tica that it had selected another candidate. According to Tica, the other woman, of Croat ethnicity, had told her that she had only a high school degree. In August 2002, the Karlovacka Bank responded to Tica’s formal complaint and notified her that the Bank annulled the job announcement, with a vague explanation that the job ad had been “incomplete.” 309 In April 2003, according to Tica, during a trial of a case initiated by her against the Karlovacka Bank, the Bank produced a document announcing a vacancy for the same post. This time, however, the announcement stated that the Bank would accept applicants with less than a university degree. 310
According to the OSCE, in some localities in Croatia—including in Dvor, Grozd, Vojnic, and Hrvatska Kostajnica—Serbs have been the only candidates since November 2002 for judicial vacancies, but the vacancies have remained unfilled.311 The persistence of vacancies may constitute further evidence of discrimination.
One measure of discrimination is the degree to which state, municipal, or town-run services and institutions employ Serb returnees. In most areas of return, virtually no Serbs are employed in health centers, schools, child-care centers, post offices, courts, police, power-supply companies, customs services, or the local administration. Such is the case of Korenica, for example, including in the nearby national park Plitvice Lakes, which receives thousands of foreign tourists and employs hundreds of people. 312 Around 2,000 Serbs have returned to the area, and few of them have jobs.313 In Gracac, where 1,500-2,000 Serbs had returned as of August 2001, only one returnee was employed in municipal institutions or enterprises.314 As of June 2003, there were no Serbs employed in the police and the court in Vojnic, although Serb returnees outnumbered local Croats and Croat settlers by 3,500 to 2,500.315 In the sixteen municipalities in Western Slavonia, as of August 2001 there was only one person—a nurse in the hospital in Pakrac—working in a state-run institution.316
Under the Constitutional Law on the Rights of National Minorities, enacted in December 2002, the State has to ensure proportional representation of minorities in the administration and the judiciary at state, county and municipal level.317 The obligation to ensure proportional representation does not extend to public institutions, such as schools, universities, and hospitals, or to the police. The lack of legal obligation to pursue adequate minority representation in public institutions and enterprises does not augur well for a marked increase in the employment of Serbs returnees.
The government has raised numerous obstacles to enjoyment of pension rights for displaced Serbs. Such obstructionism has been a significant impediment to those refugees who, deprived of pensions in part or altogether, do not have sufficient means to subsist upon return. Between 1995 and 2002 living expenses were significantly lower in Serbia and Montenegro than in Croatia, and it was only natural for such persons to remain in Serbia and Montenegro.
One significant impediment to return has been the government’s unwillingness to validate the number of years of working experience in parts of Croatia controlled by Serb rebels (the so-called Republika Srpska Krajina - RSK) in the period 1991-95.318 The government has rejected most requests for validation, claiming that the documents of the RSK pension fund, proving employment status, were lost or destroyed, or that the applicant missed the deadline for submitting the documents and other evidence.
Persons adversely affected by these policies are those who had not been retired before the war and who now lack a sufficient number of years of employment for retirement. If they are sixty-five-year-old men, or sixty-year old women, they can acquire the right to an old-age pension instead. The value of such a pension is smaller, however, than that of regular pensions.
Human Rights Watch interviewed a number of returnees who worked in RSK during the war, and most of them did not have the wartime years recognized in their employment status. A head of a human rights organization in Knin told Human Rights Watch that “nobody has had the 1991-95 period recognized; nobody ever will.”319
Many individuals did not even have a fair chance to submit requests for validation. On April 10, 1998, the government of then President Tudjman issued a decree setting out a one-year deadline for submission of claims for recognition of working time during the war.320 The claims could have been submitted only if the person had a registered residence in Croatia.321 Many potential claimants still lived abroad at the time and did not even know about the deadline.322 They could not meet the deadline and the residence requirement. The current government should issue a new decree with a new deadline.
For those who did apply before April 1999, in many instances it took years before the regional offices of the Croatian Pension Fund made a decision.323 In most cases, proving employment status was extremely difficult due to stringent conditions set out by the government. The pension fund requests that the applicant shows written proof of wartime payments into the RSK retirement fund, and that two witnesses confirm that the applicant was indeed employed. The demand for cumulative evidence runs contrary to the Law on Pension Insurance, which explicitly states that witness statements can be accepted as the sole evidence of the status of an insured person and the number of years of working experience, when other relevant information cannot be obtained “because of the circumstances caused by the Homeland War.”324 In addition, only those who validated their own employment status and worked in the same company as the applicant can testify.325 In most cases, applicants could not satisfy these requirements.
As described above, the government has been unwilling to validate the employment status and pension documents in RSK for the period 1991-95, where the validation would benefit the applicants who lack the employment years for retirement. At the same time, the authorities are eager to admit as legally relevant the RSK lists of pension installments paid between 1991 and 1995, when the government can use the lists to deny back payment of pension installments for the wartime period. The failure to make these payments adversely affects the financial lot of returnees, many of whom are of retirement age.
Those claiming unpaid pension installments after 1991 are refugees and returnees who acquired their pensions before the war but did not live in the government-controlled territory when the war began. During the war, most of them lived in RSK. These individuals could not receive pensions from the Croatian pension fund because financial transactions between the RSK and the rest of the country were halted. Instead, an RSK pension fund paid them installments that in most cases barely sufficed for a few portions of staple goods
In its initial decision after the war, in July 1996, the Central Service of the Croatian Retirement Fund instructed the regional offices to disburse unpaid installments to the pensioners who lived in the RSK.326 In some areas, those rare individuals who had the courage to return to their homes in the immediate post-war period did receive installments for the 1991-95 period.327 Possibly driven by financial constraints, the Retirement Fund suspended the implementation of the instruction in October 1996. In September 1998, the Fund voided altogether the right to installments that the Croatian Retirement Fund had not been paying between 1991 and the year in which the person applied for continued payment of the pension.328
The Fund has used the following argument: the RSK “para-fund” had been paying pensions to all pensioners living in its territory; the 1997 Law on Validation validated the decisions authorizing these payments; therefore the pensioners cannot receive new payments for that same period.329
This argument is flawed for at least three reasons. Firstly, even if the person was receiving a pension from the RSK para-fund, the Croatian Fund should cover the difference between that small amount and the amount to which the person had been entitled from the Croatian Pension Fund. Secondly, the Fund denies installments not only for the period 1991-95, but also for the period after 1995, up to the date in which the person applied for reinstatement of the pension—even though the RSK para-fund ceased to exist in 1995 and the argument of “double payments” cannot apply. Thirdly, the Croatian Pension Fund often declines to establish facts in individual cases; copies of some of its decisions obtained by Human Rights Watch do not specify the amount of the pension the claimant had been receiving from the RSK para-fund and fail to identify the period in which the RSK payments were made.330
Compounding their difficulties establishing employment and benefit records for the wartime period, many refugees who lived in the former Republika Srpska Krajina have difficulties proving that they were making payments to the Croatian retirement fund even prior to the war.331 As a result, they lack a sufficient number of years for retirement, or they can only obtain an old-age pension.
In these cases, regional offices of the national pension fund claim that documents proving payments to the retirement fund before the war had been destroyed or removed during the war. However, as human rights groups dealing with the issue of pensions claim, before the war it was impossible in public enterprises to receive salaries unless the employees paid retirement and social security payroll taxes first. It should therefore be presumed that the person was making the payments. Also, the relevant information on pension contributions was collected in Zagreb, so even if documents from the regional offices are indeed missing, they should be in the possession of the central bureau of the Croatian Retirement Fund.332 Indeed, a Serbian Democratic Forum lawyer specialized in the issue has been able to use personal connections in the central bureau to obtain information about the “missing years” for a number of interested individuals.333
296 Human Rights Watch interview with Robert Becker, deputy head of OSCE mission in Croatia, Zagreb, August 22, 2001.
297 Human Rights Watch interview with Robert Becker, Zagreb, August 22, 2001.
298 Human Rights Watch interview with Andrej Mahecic, then-assistant public information officer, UNHCR office in Zagreb, Zagreb, August 23, 2001.
299 Human Rights Watch interview with Marko Kadrum, head of the Kistanje municipality, August 24, 2001.
300 A paper by the OSCE field office mentions this assessment by the employment offices from Gracac. [OSCE Field Office in Gracac], “Gracac Municipality: Overview,” February 2001, p. 4.
301 Human Rights Watch interview with Bosko Raskovic, Raskovici (near Knin), August 25, 2001.
302 Boja Gajica had received a diploma for preschool education at a teacher training college in Split. Human Rights Watch interview with Boja Gajica, Knin, August 24, 2001.
303 Human Rights Watch interview with Boja Gajica, Knin, August 24, 2001. The account by Boja Gajica was confirmed by Olga Simic, then-head of the Knin office of the Croatian Helsinki Committee, in Human Rights Watch interview, Knin, August 24, 2001.
304 Human Rights Watch interview with Boja Gajica, Knin, August 24, 2001.
305 Human Rights Watch interview with Ljupce Mandic, Kistanje, August 24, 2001; Human Rights Watch interview with Mandics’ neighbors, Kistanje, June 9, 2003.
306 Human Rights Watch interview with Iris Vasiljevic, then-lawyer at the Knin branch of the Croatian Helsinki Committee, Knin, August 24, 2001. Ms. Vasiljevic’s husband, a gym teacher, has been unable to get a job since 1996.
307 Human Rights Watch interview with Predrag Miscevic, Pakrac, September 3, 2001.
308 Human Rights Watch interview with Dusan Karanovic, Knin, June 9, 2003. Karanovic returned to Croatia in 1996 and, in spite of his university degree, he has only been able to get a seasonal job as guard at a garbage heap, for two months in 2002. In contrast, when Karanovic resided as a refugee in Serbia, in 1995, he was immediately able to get an executive position in a state-owned company. Ibid.
309 Human Rights Watch interview with Seka Tica, Korenica, June 10, 2003. Human Rights Watch examined and confirmed the contents of the documents referred to in the description of the case.
310 Human Rights Watch interview with Seka Tica, Korenica, June 10, 2003.
311 Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Mission to Croatia, Status Report No. 12, July 3, 2003, p. 11.
312 Human Rights Watch interview with Nena Zigic, head of the Korenica office of the human rights organization “Homo,” Korenica, August 27, 2001; Human Rights Watch interview with Nikola Lalic, member of the Korenica housing commission and president of the local branch of the Serbian Democratic Forum, Korenica, June 16, 2002.
313 Human Rights Watch interview with Nikola Lalic, president of the local branch of the Serbian Democratic Forum, Korenica, June 10, 2003.
314 Human Rights Watch interview with Radmila Andric, head of the Gracac office of Dalmatian Committee of Solidarity, August 28, 2001. The one person employed was Nedeljko Vojvodic, a forestry engineer in the Public Utilities Service, Gracac.
315 Human Rights Watch interview with Mile Djuric, secretary general at the office of the Serbian Democratic Forum in Vojnic, Vojnic, June 11, 2003.
316 Human Rights Watch interview with Obrad Ivanovic, head of the office of the Serbian Democratic Forum in Pakrac, Pakrac, September 3, 2001.
317 Constitutional Law on the Rights of National Minorities, December 23, 2003, Narodne novine, no. 155/2002, article 22. See OSCE Mission to Croatia, “Implementation of the Constitutional Law on the Rights of National Minorities (CLNM) and Related Legislation,” May 12, 2003, p. 9-11.
318See above, footnote 159.
319 Human Rights Watch interview with Nevena Zunjic, head of Knin office of the Dalmatian Committee of Solidarity, Knin, June 11, 2002. In Benkovac, out of several hundred requests, the pension fund has approved “only two or three.” Human Rights Watch interview with Mirela Bilokapic, head of the Benkovac office of the Dalmatian Committee of Solidarity, Benkovac, June 10, 2003.
The requirement that the witnesses validated their own employment status and worked in the same company as the applicant is allegedly contained in government’s instructions which have not been published in the Narodne novine. Human Rights Watch interview with Jovo Knezevic, lawyer in the Dalmatian Committee of Solidarity, Knin, June 11, 2002. The regulations published in the Narodne novine—the Law on Validation and the decree on its enforcement in the area of employment and pension insurance—do not include this requirement.
320 Decree on Enforcement of the Law on Validation in the Areas of Labor, Employment, Pension and Disability Insurance, Children Allowances, Social Welfare, and Protection of Military and Civilian Invalids of War, Narodne novine, no. 51/1998, April 9, 1998.
321 Ibid., article 5 (4).
322 In Gracac, for example, more than 60 percent of the potential claimants did not submit a claim. Human Rights Watch interview with Radmila Andric, head of the Gracac office of the Dalmatian Committee of Solidarity, Gracac, August 28, 2001.
323 A lawyer dealing with the issue told Human Rights Watch in August 2001 that he was unaware of a single case in his area in which the applicants had received a decision. Human Rights Watch interview with Dusko Cvijetkovic, then-lawyer with the Serbian Democratic Forum office in Slunj, Slunj, August 28, 2001.
324 Law on Pension Insurance, Narodne novine, no. 102/1998, July 29, 1998, article 110(4) and article 99(2).
325 Human Rights Watch interview with Simo Kurusic, lawyer with the Serbian Democratic Forum in Daruvar, Pakrac, September 3, 2001; Human Rights Watch interview with Nikola Lalic, member of the then-housing commission in Korenica and president of the local branch of the Serbian Democratic Forum, Korenica, June 16, 2002; Pension Rights, briefing paper prepared by “Homo”-Association for Human Rights and Civil Liberties (Pula), April 2001.
326 “Baranja”-Association for Peace and Human Rights (Bilje), Socijalno osiguranje, socijalna i zdravstvena skrb izbjeglica i prognanika u Republici Hrvatskoj (Social Security, Social and Health Protection of Refugees and Expellees in the Republic of Croatia), July 2001, p. 16.
327 This was the case in Western Slavonia, for example. Human Rights Watch interview with Simo Kurusic, lawyer with the Serbian Democratic Forum in Daruvar, Pakrac, September 3, 2001.
328 The Central Service sent internal instructions to that effect to the regional offices on July 10, 1996. See “Baranja”-Association for Peace and Human Rights (Bilje), Socijalno osiguranje, socijalna i zdravstvena skrb izbjeglica i prognanika u Republici Hrvatskoj (Social Security, Social and Health Protection of Refugees and Expellees in the Republic of Croatia), July 2001, p. 16.
329 Ibid., p. 18.
330 Alternatively, the decisions indicate such a period in a clearly arbitrary way, by assuming that the payments were ceased to be made on the day when the person applied with the Croatian Pension Fund for reinstatement of pension payments.
331 In the areas visited by Human Rights Watch, lawyers and returnees emphasized this problem in, among other places: Korenica (Human Rights Watch interviews with Nena Zigic, head of Korenica office of “Homo,” August 27, 2001, and a representative of the OSCE field office in Korenica, August 27, 2001); Slunj (Human Rights Watch interview with Dusko Cvijetkovic, then-lawyer at the office of the Serbian Democratic Forum in Slunj, August 28, 2001); and Knin (Dusko Cvijetkovic, lawyer at the office of the Serbian Democratic Forum in Knin, telephone interview, January 16, 2003).
332 Pension Rights, briefing paper prepared by “Homo”-Association for Human Rights and Civil Liberties (Pula), April 2001; Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Dusko Cvijetkovic, lawyer at the Knin office of the Serbian Democratic Forum, January 16, 2003.
333 Human Rights Watch interview, June 8, 2003.