Six years ago, on a November day, Hashim Thaçi and Agim Çeku wrote their names onto an applicants’ list. Accompanied by the leaders of war veterans’ organizations, among others, and in front of media cameras, they became the first people to fill in applications to receive the official status of Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) Veteran.
At the time, at the end of 2012, Thaçi was prime minister and Çeku was minister of the Kosovo Security Force. Both had been leading KLA officials during the war, and in a ceremony held in the Prishtina offices of associations that stemmed from the war, they started a process that was intended to bring a measure of support to those veterans who had taken part in the war.
More than half a decade later, the integrity of that process lies in tatters and the repercussions could be far reaching.
Çeku is one of 12 people currently preparing to defend an indictment of abusing official position or authority, after tens of thousands more names were accepted onto the official lists of veterans than even the most generous estimates of the number of genuine veterans.
The state budget has resultantly been damaged to the tune of tens of millions each year, risking serious economic repercussions, while the legal case into the matter has been thrown into disarray after the resignation in August of the assigned special prosecutor, citing significant allegations of political interference in the justice system.
With the controversy of the KLA veterans lists looking set to rumble on for the foreseeable future, K2.0 breaks down what it’s all about, how we got here, and what we really know — and don’t know — about the whole affair.
Why were the veterans lists compiled?
All those who could prove that they participated in the war as members of the KLA are entitled to benefits from the state, including a specific pension, free health services and priority for social housing. Certain categories of veterans are also entitled to additional benefits such as employment privileges in the public sector, free or subsidised travel, and free university education.
Entitlement to these benefits is regulated primarily by two laws.
The wordily named Law on the Status and the Rights of the Martyrs, Invalids, Veterans, Members of Kosova Liberation Army, Civilian Victims of War and their Families, was passed in December 2011 and defines various categories of citizens who are entitled to receive benefits from the state; it sets out some of those benefits, including a state pension.
The second law, the Law on Kosovo Liberation Army War Veterans, entered into force in April 2014, and further specifies the benefits for verified veterans. This law separates veterans into six sub-categories — Invalid Veterans, Fighter Veterans, Deported Veterans, Missing Soldier Veterans, KLA Member Veterans, and Participant Veterans of the KLA War — each with slightly different entitlements.
Under the terms of the 2011 Law, a Government Commission was established to receive and review applications from citizens claiming to be KLA veterans.
The Commission, comprising members of the Prime Minister’s Office and various ministries, as well as representatives of different veterans’ associations, was charged with producing final, verified lists of KLA veterans, and was later given responsibility for dividing them into the six sub-categories of KLA veterans.
Everything seems clear. Why all the fuss?
The KLA was a guerrilla force, meaning that there weren’t exactly neatly kept records of who was — and who wasn’t — part of it.
It was divided into seven different operative zones that operated in different parts of Kosovo’s territory. Soldiers participated mainly on a voluntary basis, and there were different numbers of soldiers in each zone. The idea was for these zones to be directed by the General Staff, the highest military body that was divided into two main segments: the political directorate led by Hashim Thaçi and the military staff led first by Azem Syla, then Sylejman Selimi and finally by Agim Çeku.
In reality, the chain of command wasn’t always as clear cut as the theory, and coordination with the General Staff wasn’t as clearly defined as in a regular army.
Following NATO’s intervention to end the war, UN Security Council Resolution 1244 — which was agreed on June 10, 1999 — foresaw the rapid demilitarization and disbandment of the KLA, a process further detailed in an agreement signed between Thaçi and Çeku and NATO Commander Michael Jackson later that month.
Was the number of KLA soldiers documented at this time?
Probably, although it is almost impossible to verify.
In accordance with the demilitarisation agreement, the demilitarisation of the KLA was followed by its transformation to the Kosovo Protection Corps (KPC). However, not all members of the KLA went to KPC as some were included in various training and reintegration projects.
The KPC’s duties included mitigating damage brought about from natural disasters and accidents, providing aid in endangered zones and aiding mine clearance operations, as well as assisting with reconstruction projects and community work.
It was headed up by General Agim Çeku, who various media reports have claimed had a list of soldiers from all KLA operative zones.
According to the reports, this list — which has never been published — stated that the General Staff had 39 members, the Drenica Zone had 2,611 soldiers, the Pashtriku Zone 1,715, the Dukagjini Zone 1,537, the Shala Zone 1,253, the Llapi Zone 4,532, the Nerodime Zone 1,253 and the Karadaku Zone 347.
In total, Çeku’s reported list is said to have contained around 13,000 former KLA soldiers.
Original estimates of the number of genuine KLA veterans in the aftermath of the war were put at around 13,000, but that number has dramatically increased over the years. Illustration photo.
So we can assume that there are approximately this number of veterans?
This is where it all starts to get a bit blurred. Some leading KLA figures, including Hashim Thaçi and Sylejman Selimi, have suggested that this figure is more or less correct in terms of the number of armed KLA members.
But Çeku’s reported list is not considered to be an official estimation of the number of veterans, and even its existence has not definitively been confirmed.
To complicate the matter, other estimations from the immediate aftermath of the war put the number of veterans as having been higher.
In the months after the war, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), in cooperation with KLA leaders, registered soldiers that had given up their weapons and that had sought to be reintegrated into society, whether through the KPC, the police force or through other professions after finishing relevant training.
At the end of the registration process, media reports and academic papers — quoting an unpublished IOM report from the year 2000 — suggest that the organization had a list of 24,577 former KLA members. K2.0 contacted IOM to verify this number but received no response.
As the numbers of reported veterans have increasingly risen over the years, particularly after the laws passed in 2011 and 2014, this number has sometimes been referred to as representing the true number of KLA veterans.
Others, however, suggest that IOM veteran registration was carried out on a voluntary basis, and that even this organization’s list is not exhaustive.
A Government Commission was later established to help get to the bottom of all this though…
Yes, following the 2011 law, a Government Commission was established to consider all applications by people claiming to have been part of the KLA. This Commission, which was led by Agim Çeku, was comprised of 14 members, and was tasked with using available evidence — including from the former KLA headquarters, veterans’ associations, ministries and municipalities — to verify all applications by those wishing to receive the official status of KLA Veteran.
The Commission opened the application process on November 15, 2012 and officially closed it on February 28 the following year.
Application forms were distributed in offices of associations that stemmed from the war in different municipalities, in order to make them more accessible throughout Kosovo, while anyone was technically able to submit an application.
So… what did the Government Commission determine? How many veterans did it turn out that the KLA had?
In the four month period that the application process was initially open, 47,000 people applied to obtain the status of KLA Veteran.
That’s almost twice as many as the reported IOM estimate of 24,577 in the immediate aftermath of the war, and approaching four times as many as the 13,000 that were reported to have been on Agim Çeku’s list. The number was immediately contested as being far higher than the actual number of veterans, including by some who were themselves members of the KLA during the war.
And that’s not even the final number. After the original deadline for receiving applications passed, the Commission continued to accept further applications.
In a government meeting held on November 27, 2014, head of the Commission Çeku notified that by that point 66,339 applications had been reviewed. From this number, 49,307 applications had been accepted, while the rest were rejected as unfounded.
And even that number would rise again. Gazmend Syla, head of the Office on Issues of Categories Deriving from the KLA War within the Prime Minister’s Office, told K2.0 that in total when the Government Commission stopped receiving applications in 2015, it had received around 100,000 applications by people claiming to have been KLA veterans, a figure that he evaluates as being exceedingly high.
It is still not clear how many of these were ultimately approved — as those documents have all been seized as part of legal proceedings — but in 2016, the previous government put this number at around 53,000.
Wow, something’s not right with the numbers…
It is no secret that veterans lists are full of phony veterans. Even the highest state officials agree on this.
President Hashim Thaçi has stated many times that the KLA had at most 15,000 soldiers, while Assembly deputies and members of different political parties have publicly stated that thousands of people are unjustly benefiting from the pension scheme for veterans.
In an interview in August 2012, Muharrem Xhemajli — who at the time was head of the Organization of KLA War Veterans — stated that the former commanders of the various zones are mainly responsibility for the extraordinary inflation of the number of soldiers. According to Xhemajli, the commanders had compiled lists together with their soldiers after the end of the war.
“They are responsible. Right after the war, a list was made, and then two more were made, and none of them were the same,” he said. “The last two lists were enormously inflated with phony veterans, invalids and martyrs. In these three categories there are people who were never part of the KLA war.”
Xhevdet Qeriqi, head of the Council for the Protection of the Rights of KLA Fighters, generally agreed.
“The main culprits for the inflation of the veterans lists are the commanders of the zones and representatives of the General Staff,” Qeriqi said in 2012. “This inflation was done by the superiors. There aren’t many people who could have done this.”
If everyone knows that the number of veterans is incorrect, what’s being done to resolve the issue?
In June 2016, Kosovo’s Special Prosecution opened an investigation into the case, which was given to Special Prosecutor Elez Blakaj.
Blakaj prepared a 900-page indictment — parts of which were subsequently leaked by Koha Ditore — in which 12 members of the Government Commission were accused of abusing official position or authority.
The 12 accused persons are: Agim Çeku, Nuredin Lushtaku, Sadik Halitjaha, Shkumbin Demaliaj, Qelë Gashi, Shukri Buja, Ahmet Daku, Rrustem Berisha, Faik Fazliu, Smajl Elezaj, Fadil Shurdhaj and Xhavit Jashari. All former KLA commanders, most have held — or still hold — public positions as ministers, deputy ministers, mayors, Assembly deputies or heads of veterans’ associations.
According to media reports, Prosecutor Blakaj’s indictment includes elements that directly implicate Çeku in the alleged fraudulent operation. It is claimed that Çeku came up with a justification to be given for the high number of veterans in the Dukagjini Zone.
“If we are asked how the Dukagjini Zone had 15,000 soldiers, as a Commission we will tell them that the KLA didn’t have all these soldiers in its ranks on one day, but 45,000 soldiers were part of the KLA and the high influx and outflux occurred in the Dukagjini and Pashtriku Zones bordering Albania,” Çeku is reportedly alleged to have told members of the Commission.
The indictment also reportedly says that those compiling the veterans lists invented the Hasan Prishtina Brigade, a segment of the KLA that never existed and was first heard of in 2016. It states that two of the defendants — PDK deputy Nuredin Lushtaku and the former head of the Office on Issues of Categories Deriving from the KLA War, Faik Fazliu — admitted that this brigade never existed.
Now that the justice system is dealing with it, can we expect any concrete answers?
Don’t expect any anytime soon.
On August 15, before the case reached court, it emerged that Prosecutor Blakaj had resigned and moved to the United States, citing pressure from people within the prosecution system, and also saying he had received many threatening messages from people demanding that he halt the investigation.
Following a media storm, on August 20, Blakaj responded with an open letter that he published on Facebook, further explaining why he had resigned, accusing his superior, Head Prosecutor Aleksandër Lumezi, of pressuring him during his work in the process of investigating the phony veterans case.
Specifically, he claimed that Lumezi had urgently called him to his office to ask him about an interview that he had conducted with President of the Assembly Kadri Veseli as part of his investigations.
“At the peak of the investigation, during the interview phase, Head Prosecutor Mr. Aleksandër Lumezi urgently invites me to his office and seeks my account as to why I invited Mr. Kadri Veseli to interview him (albeit as a witness) for the veterans case, justifying that ‘they have immunity, there is no need to invite them,’ even though I made it clear that the Constitutional Court in its interpretation has never, under any circumstance, given anyone immunity when it comes to penal crimes,” Blakaj wrote.
There have been calls for Kosovo’s head prosecutor, Aleksandër Lumezi, to resign following allegations that he interfered in the investigation into veterans lists. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.
Lumezi responded to the former Special Prosecutor’s accusations by saying that Prosecutor Blakaj was unprofessional and a coward. “I think that if he was convinced that he had strong evidence and that he could do professional work, he should have stayed in Kosovo,” Lumezi said in an interview with Gazeta Express.
The head prosecutor admitted to having invited Blakaj to discuss the interview which he had conducted with Veseli, justifying the reprimand on the grounds that “it is absurd to interview a person who speaks from the Assembly podium.”
Concerns about high level political interference in the justice system grew when Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj revealed that he had sent Blakaj a letter demanding that the prosecutor report to him about the investigation and to inform him about his findings in the veterans case.
Haradinaj was also heavily criticized for a tirade of personal abuse that he directed at Blakaj, calling him a coward for having been a refugee during the war. Meanwhile, the prime minister’s AAK party colleague, Assembly deputy and indicted Commission member Shkumbin Demaliaj, was arrested after threatening Blakaj in a TV interview, in which he referred to the former prosecutor as “a deserter, a thief, an idiot, a thug” and saying he would “deal with him privately.”
It’s all starting to get a bit messy…
During this time, citizen-led protest movement #Protestoj [#IProtest] re-activated, having initially formed in 2016 in response to the ‘Pronto’ scandal that revealed wide scale corruption and misuse of public office by officials at the heart of one of the governing parties, PDK.
Under the #Protestoj banner, hundreds of citizens took to the streets on a number of occasions demanding Lumezi’s resignation, the refinement of the veterans lists and the initiation of a process to examine the wealth of public officials. Lumezi brushed aside any possibility of resigning from his post, and the protests fizzled out after a few weeks when it became clear that opposition political parties were not prepared to take the lead in developing them.
Meanwhile, then U.S. Ambassador Greg Delawie reacted by saying that Blakaj’s resignation marked a dark day for the rule of law in Kosovo and that the veterans lists issue should be solved by the justice system without threats or political interference.
Separately, in a lecture given to a group of students in the Justice Palace in August, he stated that the U.S. had carried out its own investigations into the number of KLA war veterans and that the numbers of applications accepted were severely inflated.
“We did research in the archives in Washington, and Kosovo never admitted to having more than 15,000 KLA soldiers,” he said. “It is mind-boggling how 20 years after the conflict the number of beneficiaries is growing, not declining. To put it short, the numbers don’t add up.”
Before he resigned, Prosecutor Blakaj had prepared an indictment… what happened to that?
When Prosecutor Blakaj departed in August, he left behind the indictment that he said he had been pressured not to file. The indictment claimed there were more than 19,000 people fraudulently claiming a KLA pension.
The Prosecution said it would follow through with the indictment and filed it at the Basic Court of Prishtina at the start of September. Pressure surrounding the indictment grew further when an online media portal published what it claimed to be the names of the alleged phony veterans included in the indictment.
It caused a particular reaction as the lists included the names of some people who are known to have been part of the KLA, such as Assembly deputy Time Kadrijaj. To prove this, she reacted immediately by publishing some pictures of her in the war zone, where she had contributed as a doctor.
Former Special Prosecutor Elez Blakaj resigned and moved to the United States alleging high level political pressure and interference in his investigations. Photo: Creative Commons License.
Some analysts have pointed out that the indictment not only refers to people who have fraudulently claimed to have been part of the KLA, but also legitimate veterans who are nonetheless not entitled to receive a pension. This is because the law foresees certain exceptions, such as officially recognized veterans who are regularly employed in the public or private sector, or those verified veterans who have chosen to be in some other pension scheme.
Meanwhile, the published lists contained hundreds more names of people alleged to be fraudulently claiming a KLA pension than had been in Blakaj’s original indictment. The authenticity of the published lists of names has not been confirmed or independently verified, and there have been suggestions that this was a deliberate attempt by people close to the issue to delegitimize the whole case.
From overseas, Blakaj stated that he would not be held responsible for names that were added to the indictment after his resignation.
To add further intrigue, in early November the court sent the indictment back to the Prosecution, with the justification that it needed further completion, thereby delaying the start of the court procedure.
It seems that there is a long road ahead of us. What’s happening in the meantime?
The Prosecution has a 30 day deadline to review the indictment before it must go back to the court.
Meanwhile, it has been suggested that once the court procedure for this indictment is initiated, the court could order the suspension of pensions for those named in the indictment as a temporary measure, although it is hard to determine how long it would take to conclude the court procedures for such a large case. Other high profile corruption cases have been dragging through the courts for years.
For now, veterans who are in the lists continue to receive pensions from the state budget of 170 euros per month (or 119 euros per month for families of martyrs).
The numbers of people receiving these pensions, as well as the amount spent by the state on them, is rising year by year. According to official data obtained by K2.0 from the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare, in 2016, the first full year in which KLA pensions were paid, 47.9 million euros were paid to more than 28,000 recipients.
During 2017, that went up to 65.9 million euros in pensions to more than 36,000 recipients.
This year — up until November — the number of people receiving veteran pensions has increased by 1,900 compared to 2017. In the first 10 months of 2018 alone, the state paid 63.5 million euros in pensions, with the sum expected to grow by a further 13 million by the end of the year.
Kosovo’s Prosecution says that the cost of all those fraudulently receiving KLA veteran pensions is 38 million euros each year.
That’s a lot of money coming from the state budget…
Veteran pensions have become a huge burden for the budget, with the unexpectedly high number of veterans taking the previous government led by Prime Minister Isa Mustafa and his LDK party, in coalition with PDK, by surprise.
It also incited concerned reactions from international partners. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Union have stated their objection to the budgetary implications caused by the pensions stemming from the veterans lists.
In November 2016, during a meeting with Mustafa, IMF representative Jacques Miniane demanded that the government not exceed the amount allocated to war veteran pensions in the 2017 budget. Moreover, Kosovo was close to going outside of the parameters of its agreements with IMF, and risked losing 100 million euros in investments from this institution. Financial issues that have been caused by unrealistic veterans lists were also reflected in the EU’s 2016 Progress Report for Kosovo.
The IMF and the international community in Kosovo successfully pressured Mustafa’s government into legally capping war veterans pensions through amendments to the 2014 Law on KLA War Veterans, which passed in the Assembly in December 2016.
The amendments further categorized KLA Fighter Veterans, setting fixed compensation amounts based on the level of their participation in the war, rather than leaving them up to the government to set annually. It also set a cap on the amount that could be spent on KLA Fighter Veteran pensions at 0.7 percent of Gross Domestic Product.
However, these categorizations have yet to be applied in practice.
Meanwhile, the current head of the IMF, Ruud Vermeulen, visited Kosovo in October and openly expressed concern at the Kosovo government’s pension schemes, including the veterans scheme.
In an interview, Vermeulen said that Kosovo risks going into a fiscal crisis if it continues to implement “senseless social schemes,” specifically mentioning schemes relating to pensions for teachers, police officers and Trepça miners. He added that the IMF had foreseen that Kosovo would support 12-13,000 veterans with 25 million euros in the form of pensions, but this sum of money is now insufficient due to the unanticipated rise in the number of veterans.
“We also determined the maximal level of the pension fund and demanded that veterans be reclassified, but unfortunately such a process is yet to begin,” Vermeulen said.
What happens next?
The next step is likely to be the return of the Prosecution’s indictment to court, sometime in early December.
However, nothing has been straightforward in this affair to date so expect many more twists and turns before any sort of resolution is reached.K
Editing by Jack Butcher.
Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.