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Veteran Protests in Croatia

By Mladen Pupavac and Vanessa Pupavac

‘Minister Matić and his deputy Vesna Nad insulted me personally’, disabled Croatian veteran Đuro Glogoški informed waiting veterans and reporters outside the Croatian Ministry of Veterans on 19 October 2014 (http://www.braniteljski-portal.hr/Novosti/Hrvatski-branitelji/Prosvjed-branitelja-Koliko-ponizenja-moramo-trpjeti). The wheel-chair bound veteran representative had gone to see the veterans’ Minister Predrag Matić about the problems of disabled veterans. Matić is himself a veteran diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But veterans object to Matić as ‘one of them’, part of the Croatian establishment, enjoying ministerial perks and betraying their interests, and are demanding the Minister and his deputy resign.

The incident has triggered other veteran organisations, informally led by a former special police commander Josip Klemm, to camp in protest outside the Ministry of Veterans for the last month. The protesters claim that a systematic campaign is being waged against veterans. The protests became particularly tense after the sad death from natural causes of one of the disabled veterans camping out.

The protesters want veterans’ rights to be guaranteed under a new constitutional law drafted by veteran associations and veteran approved experts, which would make it unconstitutional to reduce or abolish their entitlements. Veterans’ pensions and other benefits are threatened with cuts required by the European Union on Croatia to control its budgetary deficit.

Alongside veterans’ economic demands are political demands concerning the defence of veterans’ role in the 1991-1995 Croatian Homeland War. Veteran associations have long objected to how the government’s cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia has criminalised the veterans. Equally veteran organisations have been protesting against the display of public signs in the Cyrillic script for Croatian Serbs in Vukovar. The town of Vukovar simultaneously symbolises Croatian victimhood and victory in the narrative of the Homeland War, and having Cyrillic on public buildings is objected to as denigrating the victims of Serbian aggression.

What these protests have in common is concern over veterans maintaining their special political, legal and social status in postwar Croatia. For over a decade, the Croatian government has struggled to control the enhanced veteran pensions and other entitlements (http://www.ijf.hr/eng/newsletter/44.pdf). But instead of reducing this budgetary commitment, the number of veteran claimants spiraled in the 2000s, especially in relation to PTSD claims. The latter claimants amount to approximately 30,000 beneficiaries (http://www.vecernji.hr/hrvatska/smije-li-pobjednicka-vojska-bolovati-zbog-ratnih-trauma-i-kako-se-s-njima-nose-veterani-u-hrvatskoj-srbiji-i-bih-968201).

Their numbers swelled among demobilised veterans struggling to find employment, backed by the authority of US PTSD models anticipating incapacity over recovery  (http://alt.sagepub.com/content/37/3/199.short). Veteran pensions alone represent approximately 6 billion Kunas annually (approximately £700 million annually). The total cost of the range of veteran entitlements is difficult to calculate, but estimates have been as high as between 5-10% of Croatia’s budget.

These veteran entitlements have been maintained against the eroding Croatian public services. For beyond the favourite tourist destinations of Dubrovnik and a narrow strip of the coast, Croatia has been in recession for the last six years. Former industries have closed or severely contracted, and many Croats face unemployment, lower wages and indebtedness, and most are only entitled to unemployment benefits set much lower than average veteran pensions.

The experience of falling living standards and cuts in public services has meant that ordinary Croats are becoming less accepting of the veterans’ privileges. Moreover in a war affecting the whole of the population, the distinction between veterans, and other mobilised soldiers and civilians is blurred. Opinion polls show public support for veterans runs along party lines, rather than a cross-party consensus. Since the war the Croatian government has been keen to placate veteran organisations and avoid confrontation (http://www.vecernji.hr/vijesti/general-markac-prikupio-je-110-000-potpisa-branitelje-clanak-479004). But more recently Croatian ministers have been publicly encouraging civilian demands against the power of the veteran lobby.

The present clashes were already formenting in response to a victims’ conference in Vukovar in September organised by the human rights organisation Documenta (http://www.vecernji.hr/hrvatska/documenta-civilne-zrtve-rata-traze-pravdu-963451). The conference called for the recognition of equal rights for disabled civilian victims of war, who currently receive very little in benefits compared to veterans. Indeed Minister Matić has been sceptical about the veracity of many veteran pension claims (http://www.nacional.hr/clanak/124662/znam-sve-nacine-kako-prevarom-dobiti-invalidnost). The inequality of treatment over pension benefits is illustrated through cases such as a young female civil servant who was killed by a hand grenade by her soldier boyfriend. Her killer was buried with military honours and his parents could receive a military service-related pension. Conversely the victim’s mother receives nothing (http://www.vecernji.hr/hrvatska/documenta-civilne-zrtve-rata-traze-pravdu-963451).

The veteran lobby has been quick to see the political significance of such initiatives and how the government wants to encourage victims’ organisations to challenge the political moral high-ground dominated by veteran organisations. Government officials have been very cautiously signaling how the present level of expenditure is unsustainable and its intention to cut veteran benefits. The government has passed a law, which comes into force in January 2015, to split veteran pensions into two parts. The first part would be paid from the national pension fund and would remain at the present level. The second part would be paid from the government budget and would be dependent on the overall economic performance of the country. Meanwhile the government wants to review individual claims more closely. Given the present recession, this means cuts and the veterans know it. This is why the recent veteran protests have been so desperate because without pensions individuals face unemployment.

However, there is a danger that veterans politicising their special status end up alienating the public. Two decades after the war, the Croatian public is less sympathetic to why one group of citizens should be privileged above the rest, and immune from the economic difficulties confronting other citizens. Croatia needs its own programme of economic development and social justice which offers a future for all citizens, veterans and non-veterans alike. The country can’t simply live on the vain hope that Brussels will wave a magic financial wand and alleviate national indebtedness. Indeed the only stick the EU is likely to wave is an EU Greek-style stabilisation programme imposing worse cuts, national sell-offs and lower living standards (http://vijesti.hrt.hr/komisija-objavljuje-jesenske-ekonomske-prognoze).

Mladen Pupavac and Vanessa Pupavac have been researching the politics of Croatian veterans. See their article ‘Trauma Advocacy, Veteran Politics, and the Croatian Therapeutic State.’ Alternatives, Vol. 37(3), 2012, pp. 199-213 (http://alt.sagepub.com/content/37/3/199.short).

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons

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