Emir Kominlija started working at the Sarajevo-based company "Zrak" in August 2013. He had a mentor, and he was also trained by a graduated physicist who had previously honed their skills in Switzerland. Afterwards, Kominlija began working as an operator on a machine for thin optical layers.
In the meantime, he also became the president of the "Zrak" Union Organization. Several times, he and his colleagues organized protests and strikes. He publicly warned that "Zrak" was heading towards closure, that the managerial structures were poorly leading the company, and that the majority owner – the Government of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina – wasn't providing enough support to "Zrak."
Their warnings, as it turned out, were quite justified. Since April 14, "Zrak" has been in bankruptcy, and the majority of the workers, including Emir Kominlija, have been laid off.
"Officially, the layoff is recorded from July 21. There are announcements that a certain number of workers will return soon. We'll see if that's true and how many workers will return. We are owed 11 salaries, meal allowances, and transportation reimbursements. Currently, I'm working at a private company, delivering white goods and household appliances," says Kominlija to Žurnal.
He is just one of the workers who are not currently engaged in the jobs they were trained for. Some of them are abroad now, others have found jobs in Bosnia and Herzegovina and don't intend to return. However, there are still those, like Kominlija, who would like to return to the company.
"If there's a need for me to return or to help, of course, I'll always be available. After all, we fought for that company, for years we pointed out the problems. We've been through a lot and sacrificed a lot for 'Zrak,' so naturally, we would be glad if the company is saved and moves forward," he says.
However, the potential rescue of the company primarily engaged in the development and production of devices in the field of precision mechanics, electromechanics, optics, optoelectronics, and electronics, is not yet in sight. From the conversation with the acting director Edin Čano, we learn that efforts are being made in 'Zrak' to fulfil the concluded contract with the Austrian company Hirtenberger, but the core workforce consists of retirees and former employees.
"Currently, 18 workers are involved in production and five in administration. The bankruptcy trustee has, of course, issued layoffs, reinstated some employees, and promised to reinstate some others. Some individuals have left the company on their own and do not wish to return. That's currently the biggest problem. What we're doing is mostly being carried out by retirees. But that's not the future; the future should belong to the young," Čano tells us, who is still not registered as the acting director in the court register.
But, for the company to turn towards the future, it is necessary to first address the (pre)accumulated problems that led "Zrak" to bankruptcy, and also investigate the potentially multimillion-dollar criminal activities and the individuals responsible for bringing the company to its current state.
NO RESPONSE TO REQUESTS FOR PROPOSALS
One journalistic article is certainly not enough to comprehensively present the journey of "Zrak" from a once respected company and a crucial link in the Yugoslav and Bosnian-Herzegovinian defence industry to bankruptcy and a very uncertain future.
Data about "Zrak's" debts speak volumes about how the management structures and the Government of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina led this company.
"The total debts of 'Zrak' are around 25 million KM. The majority is owed to the Tax Administration of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is approximately 16-17 million KM. We have a debt of 600,000 KM to the Indirect Taxation Administration of Bosnia and Herzegovina and around 220,000 KM in loans to the Development Bank. The rest are debts to employees with interest. That's somewhere around seven million KM," says the acting director Edin Čano, emphasizing that he believes this shouldn't be a large sum considering the company's assets and significance.
When asked who is responsible for this situation, he gives a very clear answer – the previous management:
"Everything is on them. How is it possible that 'Zrak' didn't have more concluded contracts? I don't know. I know that when I came here, there was a large number of emails, and requests for proposals to which no response was given. It's courteous to respond, even if it's just to say we can't fulfil it at the moment, but the worst is to stay silent. Why weren't things done, was it intentionally pushed towards closure..."
The previous management was directly and indirectly selected by the Government of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the biggest problems for "Zrak" arose during the time when the government was led by Prime Minister Fadil Novalić and the responsible minister was Nermin Džindić. The last director appointed during their time was Nedžad Koldžo.
Koldžo's (in)competence is best demonstrated by the information highlighted by auditors – in 2022, "Zrak" concluded only two contracts, and those were in December, with the mentioned Austrian company, totalling 685,377 KM. This happened at a time of unprecedented demand for products in the field of defence industry on the global market.
At the same time, Koldžo and his associates didn't fulfil their tasks as required by laws, yet they enjoyed numerous benefits – from high salaries to the right to use official vehicles and acquiring a new vehicle worth up to 50,000 KM, obtaining new mobile phones, laptops, and enjoying entertainment expenses.
Due to debts owed to Elektroprivreda BiH, "Zrak" had its electricity disconnected once last year, which caused partial machinery breakdowns.
Although the published audit report, pointing out dozens of illogical and illegal details, could serve as a good starting point for prosecutors, it's necessary to investigate what happened in the years before that.
Recall that the union representatives of "Zrak" filed numerous reports, which reached the inspectors of the Financial Police of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, who conducted an inspection that concluded at the beginning of 2022. Some of their claims are particularly interesting.
It was found that two machines were purchased and were never put into operation! Other machines were also purchased, which according to the workers, arrived "dirty and partially malfunctioning." Furthermore, there is suspicion that some of these machines were overpaid for.
"Žurnal" also reported that, in addition to its own certified security, "Zrak" also hired a private security agency, during the time when Muhamed Suljagić was the acting director. According to the information we obtained, the sole task of the security personnel was to protect the director, and that cost "Zrak" 3,200 KM per month.
PROPERTY VALUED IN TENS OF MILLION KM
The reason various interest groups would benefit from the closure of "Zrak" is undoubtedly the property that is mortgaged due to accumulated debts. The company, in existence since 1948, currently owns around 180 acres of land within its premises, which was previously estimated to be worth about five million KM.
"But in 2019, a court expert assessed only a portion of the property, and at that time, the square meter was valued at around 165 KM. Since then, the price per square meter has significantly increased, which means it's worth much more than those five million, it's more than 100 million. 'Zrak' also owns apartments, some are in legal proceedings, and some have been returned through legal proceedings. 'Zrak' even owns a considerable amount of land in Vareš, and there are some apartments there as well. There is land in Croatia and Serbia too. Of course, a team of lawyers should be engaged in the coming period to take care of that and to recover everything 'Zrak' owned," Edin Čano tells us.
But it's not just the real estate and land that are of interest, which are undoubtedly attractive to various builders of residential-commercial multistory buildings. There's also the equipment that "Zrak" possesses. Although it was undervalued in the audit report, experts in the field of optoelectronics, as well as the acting director Čano, believe that "Zrak" has very valuable equipment.
"As a physicist, I was very positively surprised when I saw the diverse equipment 'Zrak' possesses, lying around unused due to the disruption of the knowledge transfer," said Benjamin Fetić, a lecturer at the Department of Physics, Faculty of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, University of Sarajevo.
Edin Čano provides his estimate of the machine's value: "Regarding the equipment, the machines, milling machines, lathes, they are somewhat outdated technologies. But when it comes to the optical machines, two machines are definitely worth over one and a half million, used. But according to the books, all machines were valued at 120,000 KM. Whether this was done intentionally for someone to buy cheaply in bankruptcy, I don't know..."
However, "Zrak" hasn't conducted an inventory of its assets and machines for years, so the precise value of the company, or what "Zrak" actually owns, is unknown. Nevertheless, the company, with its assets, is worth several times more than the total debts it has.
How the property was managed is best illustrated by available data related to leased properties. As revealed by auditors, "Zrak" signed lease agreements with 13 lessees, and the unit prices per square meter range from just two to six KM! The example of Amko Komerc stands out, which pays only around 5,000 KM per month for a fairly large property.
We also asked the acting director Edin Čano whether he believes there is work for investigative authorities in "Zrak": "Of course, there is a lot. If they come, if they are still in their working years, they could earn their pensions here. There's everything, from the sale of land in previous years, how it was sold, who sold it, who bought it, then the sale of raw materials, leasing business premises, all of it is a topic for investigative authorities. But investigative authorities rarely visit us..."
Although it was planned for "Zrak" to undergo financial consolidation by the end of 2023, as mentioned, bankruptcy has been initiated. Appeals by the new management of "Zrak" and the new Government of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, specifically the Federal Ministry of Energy, Mining, and Industry, have been in vain so far.
It is also expected that the Creditors' Council will convene, after which many things will become clearer. Recall that the bankruptcy was preceded by a long-standing legal dispute in which former employees claimed around 4.5 million KM as the base amount and around 3.2 million KM in interest due to unpaid salaries.
The Government of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina allocated seven million KM for "Zrak" in this year's budget, but not a single mark has entered the company so far. Unofficially, we have learned that a revision of the federal budget is being planned, after which these funds should become operational.
In any case, despite optimistic announcements, the future of the company remains more than uncertain...