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Slovenia has always been the most prosperous of the six former Yugoslav republics: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Slovenia and Serbia. It’s a small but proud country, and that pride is often taken as arrogance, especially by other Balkan nations. When the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) began to dissolve in 1991, Slovenia was the first to declare independence. After a quick 10-day war, the country made an about-face toward Western Europe, immediately conducting studies on how to join the European Union. Its efforts paid off: In 2004 it was the first former Yugoslav country to join the EU, in 2007 it smoothly transitioned to the euro, and in 2008 it was the first of the new member countries to host the presidency of the Council of the EU. Slovenia seemed the great success of the Balkans.
But in the shadows lay a troubling trend. Of all 47 members of the Council of Europe, Slovenia has the highest rate of human rights violations, with 148 violations per million people. As of 2016, Slovenia had lost 94 percent of its cases — the same rate as Russia.
The country’s greatest violation was also one of its first acts of Westernization: the erasure. In communist Yugoslavia, nationals of any member republic could move freely and live within the others as “permanent residents,” a status that gave them most of the rights of citizenship but allowed them to keep their home country’s nationality. After Slovenia’s independence, there was a six-month period where these permanent residents could apply for Slovenian citizenship. In the hectic new country, thousands did not apply or were rejected when they tried. Then, on February 26, 1992, poof — those who hadn’t applied were deleted from the register of permanent residents. The “erased,” as they eventually became known, amounted to about 1 percent of the country’s population.
The mass deletion had devastating effects. “[They] have been deprived of the right to legally work, to travel, to have a bank account, to vote and to be elected and to receive the pension they had earned for decades in Slovenia,” a 1996 report from human rights group Helsinki Monitor reads. “They also have no right to free medical treatment for which they had paid contributions all their life … [or to] possess real estate they had purchased.”
Letters from the interior ministry at the time show the state knew the consequences the act would have. “We have to ignore the rights these persons already have,” one reads. With wars breaking out in neighboring Croatia and Bosnia, the young Slovenian government was in a tenuous position. Lojze Peterle, the first president of the independent Slovenia, explained the prevailing mentality toward these people in a 2009 interview with the Slovenian newspaper Dnevnik. “A new state had emerged, the war had started,” Peterle said. “Some of them … didn’t believe that the new country will succeed. Some even obeyed orders from outside of Slovenia.”
Some of those who were erased were indeed members of the Yugoslav Army who fought against Slovenian independence. Sweeping nationalism created suspicion of anyone who had the option to acquire Slovenian citizenship and had passed it up.
The purge of the public register occurred with no warning or publicity. Some didn’t find out their status had been revoked until they went on holiday and were denied re-entry at the border. Some found out after being fired or evicted, because the state informed their employers and landlords of their loss of status, but not them.
Beširević, who is from Bosnia but has lived in Slovenia since he was one year old, found out at his local municipality office. The government employee took his ID and punched a word onto it in tiny holes. Twenty-five years later in Ljubljana, he pulls the card from his jacket pocket. He looks almost the same, down to the outfit, except his ’80s mustache is all pepper and no salt. Over his name and identity details, the imprint is still there. In Slovenian, it reads “DESTROYED.”
Over the next years, Beširević lost everything: his apartment; his job at one of Slovenia’s finest 5-star hotels; the health care he needed to keep the thrombosis in his legs at bay. When he began to tell his story publicly, his family told him he was embarrassing them. Eventually he lost them too. He slept on the streets. He went to the Red Cross, only to be told they couldn’t help him, because he didn’t exist.
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For most of the ’90s, there was virtually no public knowledge that this had happened; stigma and fear of deportation kept people quiet about losing their status. “People thought they were the only ones it had happened to,” Maja Ladič, a researcher at the Peace Institute, says. “They needed a couple years to realize that it was a systematic, deliberate thing that the state did.”
But beginning in 1999, the first time the state constitutional court ruled that it was illegal, it became a political tool. Right-wing parties and the media perpetuated that those who lost their status were enemies of Slovenia and “aggressors,” a Slovenian term that’s akin to “terrorist.”
“A lot of people lost 10 or 15 of their most productive years” — Sara Pistotnik, field researcher
Despite studying politics and international relations, Ladič says until she became an activist she had only heard about people who had lost their status in the context that it was their own fault for opposing Slovenia.
“Everything was communicated in terms of security issues,” she says. “Sooner or later, you felt like they were a threat.”
For the next 10 years, through a two-steps-forward, one-step-back kind of rhythm and against most public approval (a 2004 referendum asked whether rights should be restored to erased persons; 96 percent of voters said No), some people still living in Slovenia with no status were able to regain one. Katarina Kresal, minister of the interior from 2008 to 2011, was one of the first politicians to make restoring the statuses of the erased a priority. As a result, she was put through interpellation procedures to remove her from office. “You weren’t gaining points if you were saying, ‘this is wrong,'” Kresal says. “You were gaining points if you said ‘this isn’t a problem, they’re crooks and liars.'”
Then in 2012, the ECHR ruled that Slovenia had violated the rights of the people it deleted, and they were entitled to compensation. Due to the financial crisis the country was still feeling in full force, the amount offered was minimal: €50 for each month without a status, and the possibility to appeal in court for up to three times more. By way of comparison, someone on welfare in Slovenia receives €292 a month.
Relatively few persons who lost their status qualify for this compensation scheme, and even those that do sometimes can’t afford to hire a lawyer for the necessary legal procedure, according to Ladič. The deadline to apply for compensation is June 18, 2017, and as of February 21 only 5,530 have been granted compensation.
Stigma against the erased still lingers with the public, and when compensation comes up it gets stronger. But the money is necessary for many, especially those who weren’t able to legally work enough years to qualify for a pension.
“A lot of people lost 10 or 15 of their most productive years,” Sara Pistotnik, a field researcher for The Peace Institute, says.
For the 11 years — 139 months — that he had no status, Beširević was granted €6,950, to be paid in five installments of €1,390 each year. Since his bank account is frozen, he convinced someone at the municipality to pay him the first two years via an “unconventional method” — cash — but they aren’t willing to do that again. He’s supposed to receive his third payment April 7, and doesn’t know if he’ll get it.
“I can walk free now, but that’s all,” Beširević says.
He tells his story in an activist center, and there’s a red poster behind him with mug shots of politicians, Wild West-Wanted style. These politicians are the same ones Beširević used to chat up at the hotel he worked at, the ones who stopped associating with him after he lost his status. In all-caps Slovenian letters, the poster reads “Guilty for the erased.”
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The Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers, which ensures ECHR judgments are implemented, stopped monitoring Slovenia’s compensation scheme last year, deeming it satisfactory and the amount acceptable, “[taking] into account the current financial situation” of the country.
New lawsuits are being filed, but it’s a long road to the state supreme court or the ECHR, where they will likely have to be resolved. A commercial dispute takes 1,160 days on average to go through Slovenia’s national court system, a wait more than three times that in Germany and France and a problem which has drawn repeated complaints from the European Commission.
And there are still erased persons who didn’t qualify for compensation, or even to regain a legal status. Many left Slovenia, either because they were forcibly deported or denied re-entry, or because they couldn’t make a life in the country anymore so left “voluntarily.” About 12,000 of them still live outside the country, according to the lawyer Krivic, and many of them weren’t eligible for even the most inclusive law to regain a legal status, which expired in 2013. While perhaps some of them would return if they could, the government has no obligation to provide them a way to apply.
“There are no open questions of the legal status of the erased,” Nina Gregori, the country’s director general of migration at the interior ministry, says. “Slovenia got approval from the Council of Europe that the case of the erased is closed.”
Krivic sees that political momentum has waned and knows people see the issue as solved. And yet last year he found six new cases of people, still with no status, living in Slovenia with no way to apply for citizenship. They lost their status 25 years ago, meaning many are at an age where they should be nearing retirement and could soon need medical aid and care. Krivic is at least as old as the people he is defending, but he sees no end date in sight.
“What else can I do?” he asks.