Sanctions pave way to wealth for some Yugoslavs Bank thrives on need for foreign money

February 16, 1993|By Chuck Sudetic | Chuck Sudetic,New York Times News Service

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Ask Dafina Milanovic what she thinks of the United Nations economic sanctions against Yugoslavia and chances are that in a candid moment -- after making the standard Belgrade complaint that they are unjust -- she will admit that the spottily enforced measures have been very, very good to her.

Zipping around Belgrade in her Mercedes-Benz, gracing magazine covers with stacks of Western cash in hand, Mrs. Milanovic is just one of a number of Yugoslavs who have clearly managed to strike it rich, for a time at least, despite the economic turmoil and sanctions.

"The Kennedys got rich during Prohibition," said Slavica Vujicic, a spokeswoman at Dafiment Banka, owned by Mrs. Milanovic. "The time is right for extra profits here now because the sanctions have made some goods very expensive."

Each working day, there are long lines of people waiting up to 15 hours outside Dafiment's doors to bank hard currency and Yugoslav dinars at interest rates that must rank among the world's highest.

For a one-year deposit in dollars or other hard currencies, Dafiment promises a 14-percent fixed monthly interest rate. The offer has attracted savers from Yugoslavia, Greece, Cyprus, Romania, Bulgaria and even Switzerland, Croatia and Slovenia, Ms. Vujicic said.

"Dafiment has 14 million savers and 1,000 employees," she said. "This is not a spider web of a bank. It's not going to disappear overnight."

The population of the new Yugoslavia, consisting of Serbia and Montenegro, is about 10.4 million.

Mrs. Milanovic's apparent success has coincided with a dramatic rise in the misery index in Yugoslavia, which has resulted more from mismanagement than from the sanctions imposed last May in retaliation for Belgrade's military support for the Serbs carving up neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The unemployment rate has risen beyond 40 percent. Yugoslav government figures show production in December of last year falling 23 percent below that of December 1991, but unofficial estimates say the drop was perhaps twice that.

The dinar's inflation rate has broken through 23,000 percent annually. The currency, whose exchange rate has slipped from about 2,100 to 13,000 to the dollar in just eight weeks, is no longer accepted for many durable goods.

Huge factory complexes have gone quiet, and most production lines still in operation are filling warehouses with unsold goods.

The proteges of Serbia's hard-line nationalist president, Slobodan Milosevic, have kept people quiet by printing and distributing ever-increasing amounts of money, thereby stoking the inflation, and blaming the sanctions for the country's economic woes.

Mrs. Milanovic, a one-time bookkeeper, is often shown in the Belgrade press socializing with government leaders, but she has repeatedly maintained that she is simply a whiz at spotting sound investments. She refused to be interviewed for this article.

But economists and Western diplomats say her road to success has been paved by some combination of contacts with official Serbia, a pyramid scheme and the financing of highly profitable sanctions-busting deals. Some also suggest that money-laundering and the financing of arms and drug deals may be involved.

"These are the only areas where you can have a rate of return at this order of magnitude," said a Western diplomat. The diplomat explained that in a pyramid scheme, a banker takes money deposited by new customers to pay off the old ones and hopes that he will be able to leave town before the number of customers stops increasing.

The government also gives the private banks low-interest loans in dinars, and the banks change the dinars on the street for hard currency and then either loan the money at high short-term rates to enterprises starved for raw materials or use it to import products at high prices, explained a Yugoslav journalist.

Gasoline imports, forbidden by the sanctions, generate profits of 100 percent in hard currency, and enterprises desperate for spare parts and raw materials are willing to pay a hefty markup, another Western diplomat said.

"The state needs foreign currency, and citizens aren't willing to give it to the old state banks anymore," the Western diplomat said.

"The logical thing to do was to set up 'private' banks and offer such high interest rates that people were willing to take a risk."

The Western diplomat said he fully expected a crash, "but they've got the savers as hostages now."

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