Notes on Fourth Tri-lateral Crossborder Consultation: The Regional Return Initiative
1. The fourth trilateral meeting discussing displacement related matters, bringing together government representatives from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY), was opened by Mr. Jovan Ratkovic, Stability Pact National Coordinator who welcomed all participants on behalf of the Federal government of the FRY.
2. The Co-Chairman of the Steering Committee for Refugee Matters of the Regional Return Initiative, Mr. Werner Blatter thanked the Yugoslav government for hosting this meeting. He mentioned the difficult search for a new Chairman as a successor for Mr. Koschnick. He highlighted that despite this challenge, real progress had been achieved since the last trilateral meeting in September and congratulated the participants. With regard to the trilateral meeting he underlined that it is neither the intention of the RRI nor of UNHCR to address pension issues in general but to look at specific obstacles that relate to refugees and returnees. Mr. Blatter suggested to prepare a report on the conclusions of this trilateral meeting to be presented together with the final document on refugee related pension issues at the upcoming Working Table I meeting in Istanbul on 12-13 June.
3. Mr. Keserovic, Assistant to the Commissioner for Refugees, Serbia/FRY, informed the participants on the progress made on bilateral pensions issues. He was pleased that the Croatian Parliament had ratified the agreement on social welfare and pensions with FRY. This step had opened the way for the exchange of ratification instruments between Croatia and FRY, which would take place in the near future. The problem, which would still need to be addressed, is the lack of an inter-banking arrangement, which might hinder the practical implementation of the agreement. A different problem was posed by the fact that some pensioners do not receive their entitlements, which they had qualified for before the war for varying reasons.
4. With regard relations on pensions issues with Bosnia Herzegovina, Mr. Keserovic explained that the FRY representation had forwarded a proposal for a pension agreement to the government of Bosnia Herzegovina. Since there already existed an inter-banking arrangement between the two countries, there should be no major problems for pensioners to receive their pensions in the near future.
5. Concerning figures he stated that there were 25.234 pensioners from Croatia in FRY. However, it was not clear if all of these persons originally stem from Croatia. There were also about 17.000 pensioners from Bosnia Herzegovina in FRY. Mr. Keserovic stressed that data exchange for the verification of these figures would be highly appreciated.
6. Mr. Pejkovic, Assistant Minister, ODPR Croatia outlined the bilateral developments from the Croatian perspective. An agreement on pension issues was signed and ratified with Bosnia Herzegovina in November 2001 and as a consequence pensions could now be obtained more easily. In order for implementation to work smoothly the governments had agreed to create a liaison body to monitor and solve remaining obstacles. With regard to relations with FRY he confirmed the information about the ratification of the pensions agreement by the Croatian parliament. A FRY delegation would visit Zagreb in the week to come and discuss practical questions of implementation. He agreed that a possible inter-banking arrangement had yet to be discussed in more detail.
7. Mr. Pejkovic highlighted the need to clarify the figure of beneficiaries and exchange data with the other two countries. According to his information there are 5.500 beneficiaries from Croatia in FRY who receive their pensions through a legal representation in Croatia. In the absence of an inter-banking arrangement this is the only possibility to receive pensions in FRY without traveling to Croatia. Mr. Pejkovic explained that many of the 50.000 estimated pensioners in FRY could resolve their problems through representation by legal persons residing in Croatia. With regard to preparations for an inter-banking arrangement Mr. Pejkovic informed that this would depend on the Croatian Central Bank and the security of the banking system. Mr. Keserovic commented that this problem could be solved in using a guaranty from the Raiffeisen bank or other savings banks.
8. Mr. Nenadic, Assistant Minister, MHRR BiH, introduced the two most recent developments in Bosnia Herzegovina namely 1) the merger of the Mostar and the Sarajevo pension funds into one joint fund and 2) the termination of the 'Agreement on Mutual Rights and Obligations in the Field of Implementation Pension and Invalidity Insurance'. With regard to relations with FRY he explained that the Council of Ministers at this very moment considered the agreement forwarded by FRY. In a second step the document would be passed to the Parliament for ratification.
9. Mr. Salihbegovic from the Federation explained the merger of the two funds in Sarajevo and Mostar since the last trilateral meeting. The new fund is situated in Mostar. He stressed that the unilateral break of the RS fund from the agreement had created a legal gap but in practice did not have implications on pension payments. The minimal amount of a pension payment through the Mostar fund was 117 KM, which was recently raised to 140 KM. The highest amount, which can be paid, is 633 KM. He explained that out of the 900 former employees of the two Federation funds about 400 would need to find another job as a consequence of the merger.
10. Mr. Kremenovic from the RS fund explained that the average pension payment in the RS was 120 KM while it was 180 KM in the Federation. He informed that the RS fund pays the pensions for 9.090 persons who are currently residing in FRY. However, out of these 9.090 about 8.000 fled from the area of the Federation. There were no problems with the payments to FRY since this can be done through banks and post offices. The RS fund pays 7.170 pensions for persons residing in Croatia without problems in the implementation. He explained that cooperation with the Fund with Croatia was very satisfactory and expressed his hope that such a cooperation would be also possible with the Federation.
11. In addition, the RS fund pays the pensions of 2.688 persons in the Federation and even though they are lower than the federation payments they can benefit from special rights e.g. free transportation. This agreement on the special rights had been reached with the Federation in May 2000 but unfortunately the implementation was unsatisfactory and for this reason the government of RS had decided to stop payments. In total a number of 184.185 pensioners received their pensions from the RS fund irrespective of their location. Mr. Kremenovic expressed his hope that a new agreement with Federation would be found soon and that the break of the RS fund would help to agree on a more professional cooperation. He invited Chairman Blatter to visit the different pensions funds in Bosnia Herzegovina. Mr. Blatter accepted the invitation by saying that he would like to arrange for a meeting with representatives from both pension funds.
12. To conclude, Mr. Kremenovic explained that the problem with the pensions funds is partly due to the fact that the state level has very little responsibility in the field of pensions issues and is therefore not always informed on practical developments. He underlined that it would be useful to have one fund for Bosnia Herzegovina only, but that the current situation did not allow for this. He highlighted that a political solution had to be found urgently since the pensioners could not wait any longer and that it was not their fault that they receive the lowest pension payments in Europe.
13. Mr. Blatter summed up the discussion in underlining that real progress had been made in the field of pension issues: the agreement between Croatia and FRY had been ratified, an agreement between FRY and BiH is under way, two of the three funds in Bosnia have been merged. He called on the governments to report back on further activities, which could be discussed at the WTI meeting in June. He expressed his hope that with continued progress in this field his issue could soon be taken of the agenda. The document on refugee related pension issues, as prepared by UNHCR would require some updating and corrections (as per request of the RS Pension fund expert) and would then be distributed at the next RRI meeting.
14. With regard to the facilitating role of the Stability Pact, Mrs. Raskovic-Ivic, Commissioner for Refugees, Serbia/FRY, raised the need to exchange data on names of pensioners in Bosnia Herzegovina and Croatia in order to arrange for de-registration of refugees. In addition, she concluded that pensioners who received a pension of 200-300 Euro per month from Croatia do not need to live in collective centers. There was common understanding between the representatives that this data exchange would greatly increase transparency and allow better adjustment of assistance programmes.
15. With regard to the update of refugee figures Mr. Pejkovic raised the problem of the recent influx of Croats from Drvar in Bosnia Herzegovina to the Knin area in Croatia and said that the authorities are expecting more people to come by the end of the school year. In this context, a meeting with the 47 municipalities in BiH had taken place to discuss possibilities how to deal with the situation. With regard to reconstruction in Croatia 2.500 additional sites had been identified and 2.000 packages for constructions materials have been prepared. In addition, 4.000 houses will be purchased but there remains a need of 6.000 alternative accommodations. Croatia is currently in the discussion of a second loan with the Council of Europe Development Bank. Mr. Pejkovic informed participants that 5 former tenancy right holder families had returned.
16. With regard to return developments in Bosnia Herzegovina, Mr. Nenadic presented two tables with figures for the past months. In the year 2001 there had been 99.000 returns, of which 92.000 were minority returns. However, out of the total number only 18.000 had come from neighboring countries which is only 1/3 of the total and therefore not satisfactory. However, Mr. Nenadic stressed that bilateral relations had been improved and that the last meeting in Belgrade in February between both governments discussing return issues had been very good and constructive. Mr. Nenadic informed the participants that there would be a second meeting in the near future. He was optimistic that a return agreement with FRY would be signed very soon. With regard to this improved cooperation he mentioned that 200 Serb families who had been evicted from illegally occupied property in Bosnia Herzegovina were now temporarily living in FRY. There were also still 14.000 refugees from FRY in Bosnia Herzegovina -- of which the great majority resides in the Federation. For June 2002 a new registration of refugees is planned in cooperation with UNHCR. Information exchange remains a key factor for success. Mr. Nenadic informed participants that he had recently forwarded information to FRY and Croatia after waiting for some time for the approval by UNHCR.
17. Mrs. Raskovic-Ivic raised the following issues with regard to unresolved bilateral returns issues with Croatia from a Serbia/FRY perspective:
- There is a strong concern about the deadlines for reconstruction and deliberation of illegally occupied property. 9.500 refugees in Serbia still need to be taken into account before the deadline for repossession in December 2002 runs out.
- The situation with regard to Serbian claims on destruction of property due to terrorist acts has not been resolved.
- The bi-lateral understanding on a pilot project of 65 families previously holding tenancy rights in Croatia who wish to return needs to be implemented. FRY has forwarded the names of the persons to ODPR and would like to know what about the current situation as no reply had been received.
- The exchange of property from the Dalmatian coast to Areas of Special State concern raised the concern that Serbs might be disadvantaged.
19. On the housing development program Mr. Emiel Wegelin, Senior Housing Economist and advisor to the RRI, provided an overview on latest developments. He highlighted the two main objective of the housing development program: (1) ensure financial sustainability and (2) integrate refugee related housing into the overall national housing policies. He informed participants that the Stability Pact had received the requested letters of support to the housing program after the December 7 meeting in Brussels. Currently, discussions for the implementation of an in-country housing support structure with focal points in the three countries were ongoing. With regard to the proposal for a regional data exchange unit the government of the Netherlands had agreed to support the initial feasibility study which would already start in May. If everything worked according to plan, the implementation could possibly already start in September.
20. At this point Mr. Kleinschmidt updated the participants on current discussions with new partners such as private banks and housing associations. These contacts had been promising and the first result was a pilot-project with 200 new apartments to be built in Sarajevo.
21. Mr. Pejkovic informed that USAID had started a new housing program in Croatia, which looked at ways to involve private money in the sector. The programme consisted of two pilot projects: 1) a voucher system for self help reconstruction and 2) use private banking system and USAID guaranty to finance alternative accommodation. There would be 20 million USD immediately for the financing of alternative accommodation and 15 million USD for additional reconstruction. The idea is that private banks will be able to buy homes at a lower rate in areas of special state concern through co-financing.
22. Mrs. Raskovic-Ivic announced that the Commissariat was working on a database, which would comprise information on all issues from food distribution to pension issues and property. In response Mr. Pejkovic pointed to the existing database in Croatia on reconstruction, which comprises information on 118.000 reconstructed houses.
23. Summing up Mr. Kleinschmidt called on all participants to continue to refer to AREA as the key reference document and process for regional displacement matters as this helped all to focus attention and efforts. The international community had followed refugee matters in the region with a better understanding and reacted very positively to the joint launch in 2001. With respect to the achievements of the past year he asked whether the participants would agree to update the original AREA document and present a new version -or AREA 2 - at the WT I meeting in Istanbul in June. There was common agreement that this would be useful and the RRI secretariat promised to send out an official letter to ask for input such as reports, statistics or analysis from all Steering Committee Members before the 20 May 2002. The Secretariat would then do the drafting in consultation with a small core group of experts from the region and international organizations who had contributed to the initial document.
24. Summing up, Mr. Ratkovic explained that all documents for the Working Table meeting should be sent out as soon as possible in order to make it possible for participants to read them before the meeting in Istanbul. He announced that the central themes of the meeting would probably be refugees matters and cross border cooperation. Werner Blatter informed that there would be a High Level Humanitarian Issues Working Group (HIWG) meeting on 27 June in Geneva which will address the results of the past years and will discuss the strategy for the region for the coming two years.
25. The meeting which had started at 14.45 closed at 18.15pm and was followed by a dinner hosted by the Commissioner for Refugees of Serbia/FRY.
List of Participants
Mario Nenadic, Assistant Minister, BiH
Adul Salihbegovic, Assistant to the Minister, Federation Ministry for Social Affairs and Refugees, BiH, Federation
Ostoya Kremenovic, Director of the Public Fund for Pension and Invalid Insurance, BiH, RS
Radomir Bogdanovic, Embassy of BiH to FRY
Lovre Pejkovic, Assistant Minister for
Reconstruction and Construction, Croatia
Adela Kabr Holmjic, Croatian Pensions Insurance Institute, Croatia
Rubinka Sinprinovic, Croatian Pensions Insurance Institute, Croatia
Svetlana Sozinovic, Embassy of Croatia to FRY
Sanda Raskovic-Ivic, Commissioner for
Refugees, Serbia, FRY
Petar Ladjevic, Adviser to the President, FRY
Jovan Ratkovic, SP National Coordinator, FRY
Dejan Keserovic, Assistant to Commissioner for Refugees, Serbia, FRY
Werner Blatter, Co-Chair of RRI
Dario Carminati, Representative UNHCR Belgrade
Kilian Kleinschmidt, Executive Secretary
Daria Nashat, Assistant to the Executive Secretary
Gert Westerveen, UNHCR Belgrade