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Croatia: Storm Over War Pensions

Thousands of ex-fighters who gained disability pensions for little or no reason are waging a fierce battle to keep their generous benefits.
By Drago Hedl

Croatia's prime minister Ivica Racan faces a bitter struggle over plans to reduce the budget by 3 billion kuna (400 milion euro) by cutting payments to war invalids and veterans.

The country's sluggish economy is clearly unlikely to generate enough tax revenue to meet current expenditure, making budget cuts a must. This year's budget was set at 73 billion kunas.

As well as payments to war invalids and veterans, military pensions are also likely to be slashed. At the moment, the army has a special ministry to look after them. Introduced under the late president Franjo Tudjman, its sole concern is care of veterans from the 1991-5 war against Yugoslavia, generally known as the Homeland War.

The current minister for war veterans, Ivica Pancic, has repeatedly claimed that many war veterans are falsely accepting benefits from the ministry. Apparently, many gained their status by bribing doctors and members of the commissions for disability pensions.

Pancic has tried to examine earlier decisions to grant veterans their disability benefits, but little has been achieved owing to the fierce resistance of ex-servicemen associations.

Early in September, a local Osijek-based newspaper, Osjecki Dom, published a list of 3,333 war invalids and the degree of their disability in the Osijek-Baranja district, one of Croatia's 20 administrative districts. Members of HVIDRA, the association of Croat war invalids from the Homeland War, reacted by blocking the distribution of the newspaper, parking vehicles in front of the entrance to the printers.

For three days in a row, the guards they posted in front of the building successfully prevented distribution of the edition of the paper containing the list of war veterans. The association eventually lifted its blockade after coming under mounting public pressure.

War veterans said they opposed publication of the contentious list because they feared being stigmatised. The real reason was more likely to have been their members' fear of being exposed as false claimants. Such concern was amply justified. The public was shocked to find football referees, security guards, owners of cafés driving expensive Mercedes or BMWs and even a karate champion, as recipients of disability payments.

Military and invalid pensions are large by most people's standards. The average monthly payment for someone on 100 per cent disability is 1,400 euro, an enormous amount in comparison to the average income of 500 euros.

Invalids with lesser degrees of disability receive around 550 euro per month, including their monthly pension. Such benefit payments in Osijek-Baranja district alone totals a million euro a month. In Croatia as a whole, about 250 million euro is spent on disability pensions each year.

Tudjman, the man behind the substantial privileges granted to former fighters, turned a blind eye to irregularities in the classification system for invalids and their degree of disability. The government banked on its generosity securing veterans' votes for their candidates in parliamentary and presidential elections.

Tudjman's government also granted favourable loans to former fighters to help them set up businesses. Many, however, used their access to favourable long-term credits with low interest rates to buy expensive cars and now find they cannot repay the interest they owe.

When the Croatian Democratic Community, HDZ, lost the January 2000 elections, the incoming left-of-centre coalition announced it intended to revise the disability benefit system, concentrating on the most suspicious cases.

Starting at the top, the new authorities decided after inspection that as many as 10 generals had illegally obtained disability benefits. General Branimir Glavas, who had gained the status of a war invalid with 50 per cent disability, had been granted his benefits for injuries sustained in traffic accidents, for example, far from the battlefields and front lines.

When the more dubious veterans realised the sums they received each month as well as the other privileges they had acquired on the basis of their disability - such as duty-free import of private passenger vehicles, tax exemptions, free health care and insurance and special child benefits - were threatened, they flocked to war veteran associations to defend their interests.

These associations have insisted that the government's drive to regulate the benefits system constitutes a brazen attack on the dignity of the Homeland War.

Organisers of groups glorying the conflict, such as Marinko Liovic and Mirko Condic, have been in the forefront of public resistance to the extradition of General Ante Gotovina to The Hague tribunal and the trial of General Mirko Norac for crimes committed against Serb civilians in Gospic in 1991.

Any mention of a reduction of war veterans' privileges, revision of decisions on the degree of their disabilities, or discussion about war crimes committed by Croat soldiers during the war is invariably labelled as an attack on the dignity of the Homeland War.

Nor do the veterans groups shrink from illegal actions, such as mounting roadblocks in the streets when the arrest of General Norac was attempted, or the prevention of newspaper distribution, as in the case of Osjecki Dom.

The extreme right, including the largest part of Tudjman's right-wing HDZ, approves and encourages such behaviour by war veterans. They have openly backed large street protests against the trial of Norac and Gotovina's extradition to The Hague.

The most recent incident in Osijek, when HVIDRA members blocked the distribution of newspapers containing the list of local war invalids, of whom even the leadership of the Osijek branch of HVIDRA confesses at least 10 per cent are fakes, shows the government is up against a special privileged caste. It is also clear that the veterans are prepared to go to any lengths, whether or not it entails serious breaches of the law, to protect their interests.

Drago Hedl is a regular IWPR contributor and an analyst for Feral Tribune from Croatia.

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