Workers of the Sutjeska National Park have been on strike for days due to unpaid wages, while those in charge say there is not enough money. Numerous examples demonstrate that there is indeed enough money in this public institution when those in charge want it, given that former directors received tens of thousands of marks in addition to their salaries. This was for advances. This is a story about how public funds are being mismanaged and how money is being illegally extracted from public institutions.
Part of the unpaid wages owed to the workers dates back to 2022 when Aleksandar Kovač was the director of the institution. Employees then spoke about how he came with the task of destroying the institution, which is the oldest national park in Bosnia and Herzegovina and which protects 330 endemic, rare, and endangered plant species.
Kovač’s attitude towards the national park and public funds is evident from the way he spent the park’s money. In just the past year, he received more than 32,000 KM in advances. He never returned most of them.
He was paid advances of up to 5,000 KM, and one travel advance was as much as 3,500 KM. According to official documents, there was no refund for any of them.
Kovač largely failed to justify the money he received in advance and kept it for himself, as evidenced by documents in Spin info’s possession. He demanded 8,607.39 KM from NP “Sutjeska”, leaving Kovač owing the National Park 23,858 KM.
Kovač refused to explain to Spin info why he took the advance and whether he kept the public money for himself. The following conversation between Spin info journalist and Kovač shows that the former director of the National Park does not want to explain to the public how he spent their money.
Spin info: “Is it true that you haven’t returned the advance?”
Kovač: “A lawsuit has been filed on that basis, so I cannot comment.”
Spin info: “Did you keep the advance?”
Kovač: “A lawsuit has been filed for defamation, damage to reputation and honour, and I cannot comment on that at the moment.”
Spin info: “Can you at least say if you owe money for the advance?”
Kovač: “Thanks. Goodbye.”
It was also determined by auditors of the Main Audit Service for the Public Sector of Republika Srpska in the 2022 report that the former director had previously violated the law.
At that time, financial statement auditors and compliance auditors gave a qualified opinion stating that the public institution was violating a number of legal and sub-legal acts – the Law on Public Procurement, the Law on Budget System of RS, the Law on Salaries of Employees in Public Services of RS, the Law on National Parks, the Labor Law.
As previously reported by the media, when Aleksandar Kovač took over the helm of the Sutjeska National Park, he continued to dismantle the park’s property, so he sold almost all of Sutjeska’s vehicles at an auction held on July 26, 2021. According to Žurnal’s findings, all the vehicles were purchased by the company “Pavgord”, whose owner is Gordan Pavlović-Goci.
And much more.
We also asked the current acting director, Miloš Nogo, about the management of the national park and Kovac’s advances. He tells Spin Info that he does not protect anyone, but he does not want to comment on the case so that the media would not “rejoice”.
“It’s all known, it’s all under investigation. I don’t protect anyone. I don’t have anyone there. Everything will be investigated, and proven. What will happen, how it will happen, you will see in the further continuation“, Nogo said for our media.
Special hunting ground Zelengora – funds collected from hunters illegally spent?
The problems in the National Park “Sutjeska” are not only related to the director’s irresponsible spending of money, advances, and sale of cars. In fact, certain irregularities have been found related to the Special hunting ground Zelengora, managed by “Sutjeska”.
The Hunting and Fishing Supervision Department sent a letter to the accounting sector of “Sutjeska” related to the shooting of game that was collected in a total amount of 840.00 KM, and the collected funds were allegedly used for payment and expenses for education to obtain a license for the evaluation of hunting trophies held in Divčibare, Serbia.
“Due to the justified suspicion of unauthorized spending of the mentioned funds, it is necessary to verify whether the mentioned hunters or game shooting services were issued a regular invoice and fiscal receipt with the calculated VAT rate”, the letter said.
The accounting department replied that the mentioned calculations were never submitted to their service and that no claim or payment from the mentioned persons was registered.
In order to determine where the mentioned 850.00 KM, which was not recorded in the accounting department, was allegedly spent on education for obtaining a license for assessing hunting trophies for two employees of the NP “Sutjeska,” Milan Nikolić and Nenad Vurdelja, the head of the Hunting and Fishing Supervision Service directly contacted the Hunting Association of Serbia.
“Due to a certain misuse of money in our hunting and fishing supervision sector, allegedly spent on taking the exam for hunting trophy assessors in Divčibare, on July 17, 2022, we kindly request that you give us feedback on whether the exam was held under your jurisdiction and whether Milan Nikolić and Nenad Vurdelja are registered with you as persons who passed the exam for hunting trophy assessors”, the inquiry from the head of the Hunting and Fishing Supervision Service of the NP “Sutjeska” addressed to the Hunting Association of Serbia stated.
The response from the Hunting Association of Serbia clearly indicates that Nikolić and Vurdelja did not participate in the event organized by the Hunting Association of Serbia, nor was the Association the organizer of the event.
We also asked an employee of NP “Sutjeska”, the aforementioned Milan Nikolić, about the alleged examination for the assessment of hunting trophies.
In response to our question about what happened during the examination at Divčibare, he says that the head of the Hunting and Fishing Supervision Service consciously or unconsciously contacted the wrong federation.
“They contacted the Serbian Hunting Federation, but our host was the Western Serbian Hunting Federation, which are two different organizations,” says Nikolić, and when asked if he thinks he did something wrong, he responds: “Well, if I thought so, I wouldn’t be this sure about all of this and about myself. I have done absolutely nothing wrong in my life, especially this.”
The assessment of hunting trophies is of great national importance
It remains unknown where the revenue from hunting game ended up and which association was involved, as well as why Nikolić and Vurdelja addressed Serbian associations at all since the exam for trophy assessment can be taken before the hunting associations of Republika Srpska.
Only members of hunting associations can take the exam for trophy assessment, and if they pass the exam, they can be members of the Commission for assessing hunting trophies and sign the trophy list. This commission is appointed by the hunting grounds user, in this case, “Sutjeska”, with the consent of the Ministry. The commission is made up of members who have passed the exam for trophy assessment.
The director of NP “Sutjeska” could not confirm to us whether these exams are recognized in Republika Srpska if they are taken outside its territory because, according to the “Regulation on the Program and Manner of Taking the Exam for Assessment of Hunting Trophies”, the application for taking the exam is submitted to the Hunting Association of Republika Srpska. The expert commission before which the exam is taken must have the consent of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Water Management of Republika Srpska.
The evaluation of hunting trophies is of great national importance because top-quality trophies must not be taken out of the territory of Republika Srpska. Wildlife is a public good and enjoys special care and protection of Republika Srpska, so every time game is hunted, it is necessary to take into account the evaluation of the hunted game by professional staff for assessing hunting trophies, especially in the case of commercial hunting and game hunting. The incorrectly assessed trophy could be taken out of the country, which would cause enormous damage.
According to the Law on Hunting of the Republic of Srpska, hunting trophies are antlers of roe deer, red deer, chamois, wild boar trophy, wolf, bear, fox, lynx, and other game listed in the hunting card. They can be taken out of hunting grounds, such as Zelengora, which is managed by the NP “Sutjeska”, only if a permit and a trophy list are issued by the hunting ground user, that is., “Sutjeska.”
Milan Nikolić is currently employed at the Virtual Reality Center Perućica, as part of the Park, while Nenad Vurdelja worked as the head of hunting, but according to an employee of NP “Sutjeska”, he resigned after the departure of former director Kovac.
Whether Milan Nikolic spent the money on education or not, and whether he is a qualified professional or not, was not explained to us.
Nikolić told Spin Info that he has no need to explain anything, including how he invoiced something that is a public good without a receipt, and whether he illegally spent money.
“I have no need to justify myself for that. I filed a disciplinary complaint against myself. I requested that this be investigated and that the results of the investigation be publicly announced on the National Park website. I am not running away from anything publicly”, said Nikolić.
We asked him why he didn’t submit the invoices he charged to the accounting department.
“I have no need, as I said, to justify myself to anyone. Let it be investigated and let it be publicly disclosed”, he replied.
What is interesting is that Nikolić is also an SNSD councillor in the Foča Municipality Assembly. He used to work at the Foča Power Distribution Company, and after the decision to pay severance packages to those who resign due to excess workers, he decided to “help” relieve the Foča Power Distribution Company of some employees. According to sources from Spin Info, he received a severance package of 27,000 KM because he knew he had a secure job waiting for him at the Sutjeska National Park.
When we asked him if he took the severance package knowing he would get a job in a public institution run by the SNSD, of which he is a councillor in the Foča Municipality Assembly, he said, “Oh, they say a lot of things, don’t they? I’m telling you. You do your job, and I have no problem with that, but I have no need to justify myself to anyone”.
As an SNSD councillor, Nikolić has already dealt with abuses, such as the right to ethnic identity. Although legal, he declared himself as “Other” in the local elections, which was immoral, and as the son of a fallen soldier, he was the president of the Municipal Organization of Families of Captured and Fallen Soldiers and Missing Civilians for years.
When a Serb is needed, when an “Other” is needed. Everything as needed.
Nikolić’s illegal actions are already under investigation by the police, according to his superior and director of the National Park “Sutjeska”.
“Criminal charges have been filed, and they will be announced when the time comes. There are no hidden things. I do everything the way it should be, and certainly, no one will be spared. Everything will be fair”, Nogo claims.
While the company is struggling with problems, only some of the malpractice is surfacing. Instead of public property that should be protected by all means, national parks seem to be a cash cow for those who see nothing wrong with putting public money in their private pockets. And they don’t want to talk about it.