1997 protests. | Photo courtesy of BujarDugolli.net.

Kosovo’s 1990s graduates deprived of pension rights

Pre-war graduates in Kosovo are receiving lower pension payments due to a Labour Ministry guideline that does not recognize Yugoslav-era diplomas issued from 1991 to 1999.

Njazi Korca was in prison when he was supposed to take his university examinations in the early 1990s, when Kosovo was still part of Yugoslavia and was ruled from Belgrade.

“I was initially sentenced to six years in prison because of political activities against Yugoslavia,” Korca explained. “I had four or five exams to graduate, but Yugoslavia was not so humane as to allow us to go out for our exams.”

Korca only managed to graduate in 1996 – a date that would return to haunt the former political prisoner when he became eligible for his pension a couple of decades later.

When Korca, who is now 66, received his monthly pension payment in July this year, it was 158 euros – the amount given to people in Kosovo who left school at the age of 14 but paid pension contributions under the old Yugoslav system before the war.

People in Kosovo who worked and paid pension contributions for at least 15 years before the war currently receive pensions ranging from a base level of 158 euros to a maximum amount of 230 euros, according to their level of education.

Korca – who ironically is a former director of the Regional Office for Pensions in Pristina – had submitted his high school and university diplomas as evidence that he should be paid at the higher rate, but the authorities refused to recognise his qualifications.

“Even though I have asked for clarifications from the Ministry [of Labour and Social Welfare], I never received any official response,” he said.

Korca and many others like him are facing the same problem: diplomas dating from 1991 to 1999 are not recognised as qualifying documents for pensions in Kosovo under an administrative guideline that was introduced in January this year.

Paragraph 5 of article 5 of this guideline says, “All proof for qualification, determined by paragraphs 2, 3 and 4 of this article, must be before 01.01.1991.”

Since the change was made, the complaints office at the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare has received hundreds of letters of protest from people affected by the introduction of the new guideline.

Bahri Xhaferi, the head of the Administrative Department for Pensions at the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare, who was one of the people who drafted the guideline, justified the change by saying that no one paid pension contributions from 1991 to 1999 and therefore they do not deserve the maximum pension.

“Since under the legislation that existed back then, those people didn’t contribute at all – they didn’t pay anything and didn’t provide the means for retirement insurance – then it’s normal that the government can’t take the responsibility to pay a pension [to anyone who did not contribute],” said Xhaferi.

Despite not recognising the educational qualifications of the 1990s when assessing pension payments, the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare and the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology has recognised this period as part of the officially-valid employment history of education workers since April 2016.

This is significant because people in Kosovo need a 15-year employment record to qualify for pensions under the contribution system that was in force before the war.

Recognising employment history from the 1990s as valid was one of the main demands voiced by Kosovo’s Education Union. The union has staged several protests over the issue in recent years.

But it is unacceptable to not recognize diplomas from this period when assessing pensions, argued pension scheme expert Adil Fetahu.

“The Union of Pensioners in Kosovo must have an urgent meeting with the Minister of Labour and Social Welfare and the Minister of Education, Science and Technology, so that they can review this paragraph,” said Fetahu.

The country’s pensions system is suffering from a funding gap that dates back to the time when Kosovo was part of Yugoslavia.

When Kosovo split from Yugoslav rule after the war ended in 1999, it did not inherit from Serbia a retirement insurance fund in which all the contributions that were paid before the conflict were collected, as Belgrade does not recognise Kosovo as independent.

Xhaferi said however that it is not known exactly how much Serbia owes Kosovo in terms of pension contributions that were paid before 1999.

“We know that the number of pensioners was around 90,000, but because of the currency changes since 1999, we cannot say a particular amount of money. Serbia owes Kosovo the pensions of each person who paid contributions during those years,” he said.

Education was a key political battleground between Slobodan Milosevic’s regime and Kosovo Albanians in the 1990s.

Milosevic revoked Kosovo’s autonomy within Yugoslavia in 1989 and imposed a Serbian-language education system.

Albanians created a parallel system of high schools and universities in which students could be taught in their own language.

Kosovo Albanian students also staged mass demonstrations in the late 1990s that became a significant factor in galvanising opposition to Belgrade’s rule.

The decision not to recognise diplomas from this period is unfair because it was a historic moment of resistance, argues Bujar Dugolli, who was the head of the Independent Students Union in 1997 and one of the organisers of the protests to regain Albanians’ access to state school premises.

Now Dean of the Philosophy Faculty at the University of Pristina, Dugolli said that the new administrative guideline must be changed as soon as possible because it is affecting the pensions of those who kept Kosovo’s education system alive during the 1990s.

“Not recognising the diplomas takes us to another issue, another context, which I think officials must be held accountable for if they don’t pull this [guideline] back and make the appropriate changes,” Dugolli said.

Meanwhile Njazi Korca is also hoping that the authorities will now reconsider the change and allow him to receive his full pension at last.

“This administrative guideline should be reviewed, because Yugoslavia did not offer studies for us in prison. All we had was torture,” he said.

“This is a violation of human rights. It is not normal.”

This article was produced as part of the Kosovo Fellowship for Quality Reporting, as part of the Media for All project implemented by Balkan Investigative Reporting Network and supported by the EU Office in Kosovo.

04/10/2016 - 11:12

04 October 2016 - 11:12

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