National Geographic grantee Riley Arthur is documenting the Erased of Slovenia- 25,000+ non-ethnic Slovenian residents were left without legal status after the country split from Yugoslavia in 1991. Over two decades later, the community is still fighting for documentation. These stories are about the Erased and the places they live.
February 26th, 2014 marked the 22nd anniversary of the Erasure. Throughout my fieldwork, people close to me have asked me variations of the same questions: Why should we care about the Slovene Erasure? Why is it still relevant? For those Erased, relatives of Erased people or those working with the Erased, it is still an everyday struggle.
Twenty-two years ago, the newly independent Slovenia made a decision about citizenship and legal residency. The former Yugoslav republic was fortunate to be an economically fruitful state, and one that saw an influx of residents from other Yugoslavian republics. Therefore the new country had to decide who could be eligible for permanent residency, as they had a large Yugoslav migrant population. Slovenia chose to draw the line at ethnicity. Those who were ethnically Slovene were automatically granted citizenship and did not need to fill out any paperwork. Those from other republics were required to apply. Many did apply, some did not, others of a mixed Slovene ethnicity did not apply and awaited letters than did not come. After the deadline for permanent residency past on February 22nd, 1992, any who had not been granted citizenship or permanent residency were literally deleted from government records, becoming illegal migrants with no legal status overnight. These 25,000 “Erased” were legally entitled to nothing.
In the early 2000’s, the Slovene Constitutional Court determined that this measure was unconstitutional and a limited number of Erased were able to gain residency permits through a lengthy process. The Erasure remained relatively unknown, despite Slovene activists efforts, until fairly recently when in 2012 a group of Erased won their first case against the government of Slovenia at the European Court for Human Rights.
On February 13th, 2014 Aleksander ‘Aco’ Todorović, without a doubt the most interviewed and publicly recognized Erased person, was found dead after being missing since January 14th. It was pronounced a suicide.
In an interview last spring, Todorović told me that he already felt dead- that the Slovene state had killed him by denying him his basic rights. The last time I saw him, he had visible bruises from being attacked by three men he described as Slovene Nationalists at a café near his home. The incident, not the first of its kind, had left him afraid to leave his home.
Several other Erased I worked closely with have similar fears for their own safety. The Erasure remains one of the most controversial subjects in Slovenia – a frequent topic in the Slovene news cycle. There isn’t a Slovene who doesn’t have an opinion on it. Most of the meetings of Erased activist groups still take place in autonomous zones away from the public eye. Many Erased are still too afraid to even meet in public.
Currently the compensation scheme proposed by the Slovene government entitles Erased who apply and can prove they were in Slovenia for the duration of their Erasure (which most can not) to between €40-50 a month, which amounts to 50% less than what the European Court For Human Rights proposed in the “Kuric and Others vs. Slovenia” decision, which declared the Erasure unconstitutional and demanded pecuniary damages be paid. This amount is far less than the €260 recipients of Slovene state welfare receive monthly (as they are not citizens of Slovenia, the Erased are not eligible for state welfare). More importantly, few have yet been able to qualify for this compensation, and several people I worked with speculated that they would never see a cent.
The Association of the Erased Residents of Slovenia, led by former Constitutional Court Judge Mateo Krivić – another controversial figure since prior to his retirement he worked as a judge during the period in which the Slovene courts upheld the legality of the Erasure – is taking their own demands for appropriate and timely compensation directly to the European Court for Human Rights. In their proposal, they are requesting €300 monthly for those Erased that were left destitute without work. While the current compensation plan approved by the Slovene government is to be executed over the course of five years, the Association of the Erased Residents of Slovenia is willing to provide the government with a period of twenty years to execute the plan, in light of the current economic crisis Slovenia is facing.
Dimitar Anakiev, president of the Association of Erased Workers, said of the recent developments in the compensation scheme: “Compensation by the Slovene government for 20 years living as an Erased (a victim of administrative ethnic cleansing) is the continuation of politics of ethnic-segregation. Firstly, it is so low that it treats Erased people as second rate people, as if the Erased are not worthy of legal compensation but they must be separately compensated, in some kind of ‘law-ghetto.’ Second, they compare the compensation with WW2 compensation even though the Erasing was done in a time of peace. A kind of manipulation that treats Erased again as war enemies – something that needed to be done (to destroy the enemy) with no legal responsibility for politicians who did this.”
Anakiev is correct in that the politicians in office have had no legal ramification for the Erasure, nor have they issued a public apology which many of the Erased feel they deserve. In fact, many of the politicians responsible for the Erasure remain in office today.
With the anniversary of the Erasure and the recent passing of an important Erased activist, I have found it exceedingly difficult to write this blog detailing the continued struggles of the Erased some 22 years later. As a researcher who has spent over two years researching this topic, it is disheartening to see that little has improved since the original deadline for a compensation scheme approved by European Court for Human Rights of June 2013. The future remains grim for so many. For those Erased and their families, this fight could very likely be a life long battle for acceptance and compensation. The Erasure is far from unique in the history of the world. For centuries, governments have ethnically isolated, cleansed, and stripped whole people of their rights and basic human dignity. Which is why I will continue to follow this story and do whatever I can to help bring attention to the cause of the Erased.
Rest in peace, Todorović my friend; your fight is now over.Riley Arthur with Erased activists Aleksander Todorović and Mirjana Ucakur in Ptuj, Slovenia in July 2013. Photo by Eva Pivać