Poverty from war and sanctions sparks Serbian exodus, but little sign of revolt

April 06, 1993|By Dusko Doder | Dusko Doder,Contributing Writer

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- More than a year of warfare and economic sanctions is taking a heavy toll in Serbia, the seat of the rump state of Yugoslavia.

But the grim state of affairs has yet to arouse a substantial challenge against the regime of Slobodan Milosevic, which the world blames for most of the upheaval in the Balkans.

A walk through the streets of Belgrade or other Serbian towns is a depressing experience. Trade in anything other than food has virtually stopped. According to official estimates, 90 percent of the population spend their entire income on food.

In shops, people can afford to buy little more than bread and milk. So few buy meat that it lies for days on shop shelves and rots. Squeezed be tween high inflation and soaring unemployment, most urban families have plunged into extraordinary poverty.

Typical is Borka Jelic, 43, an industrial worker and mother of three.

"We practically don't even see meat anymore. I boil beans for two days, then cabbage, then potatoes, then back to beans," she says.

Only her youngest daughter gets to drink milk. Her husband is unemployed.

The monthly inflation rate of more than 300 percent has zTC devastated the lives of people on fixed incomes.

A retired schoolteacher, Borivoj Laban, 67, says he and his wife are hungry most of the time.

"Believe me, there are moments when I think there are only two possible solutions: suicide or crime," he says. "But I'm too old to turn to crime."

The dramatic drop in living standards has given rise to a new business: companies that provide modest financial assistance to pensioners who are prepared to offer their real property in exchange.

Ljubica Peric, who says her monthly pension now buys one liter of milk and a loaf of bread, has signed over to such an outfit her one-bedroom apartment after her death.

"I'm glad I'll leave my apartment to the people who extended my life," she says.

At the same time, the country is losing many of its brightest citizens. Foreign embassies in Belgrade -- particularly the Canadian -- are daily besieged by visa applications from the most outstanding academics and professionals hoping to leave.

"We are getting up to 500 applications every day," says a Canadian diplomat. "Most people don't qualify because they are unskilled, but they are losing some very skilled and talented people."

Western Europe, South Africa, the United States, Australia and Cyprus also attract strong interest. Belgrade newspapers feature ads by agencies promising to secure visas for hard currency.

Opposition leaders here say that between 150,000 to 200,000 Serbs have left since the outbreak of Yugoslavia's civil war in the summer of 1991. Most of them are university-educated. Like the rest of the country, they have been plunged into poverty by economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations.

An average professor's salary is now less than $40 a month.

"I was recently offered an all-expenses-paid place at a conference in Dresden" in Germany, one complained. "But I would still have to pay my way there -- and that would cost me eight months' salary."

Vlastimir Matejic, the federal minister for science and technology in the short-lived Cabinet of Prime Minister Milan Panic, said 20 percent of researchers in natural sciences and technology left the country last year. He forecast that the number could double this year.

Mr. Matejic also heads Belgrade's leading research institute for information technology. He said 72 of the institute's 360 full-time research staff went abroad last year.

The exodus of university-educated people, according to Mr. Matejic, has weakened Serbia's democratic potential. As he put it, "You cannot have a democratic society without highly educated people."

The revolutions that swept other Eastern European dictators from power in 1989 may have started in the colleges and universities. In Serbia, several demonstrations against the Milosevic regime were organized by Belgrade University students and professors, but they never gathered enough force to create a serious movement.

Yugoslavian officials also note that the span of the exodus is widening as youths with only a secondary education are joining the rush.

Despite the appalling living conditions, revolution is hardly in the air.

Perhaps the most serious threat to the rule of Serbian strongman Milosevic was the collapse of one private bank that has robbed thousands of people of millions of dollars. The Jugoskandic bank attracted investors with extraordinary interest rates: up to 15 percent a month on foreign currency. For many it was their only source of income. Half the working-age population is unemployed.

There has now been a run on Dafiment, the second main private bank: tens of thousands of people have had to queue for days at the Partisan Belgrade football stadium for numbered tickets saying when they can visit the bank.

The bank's proprietor, Dafina Milanovic, has been saying she may not be able to repay all the depositors. Her security guards have taken to beating up aggressive clients.

Yesterday, two groups of security guards for Dafiment got into a shootout between themselves, leaving one guard dead and four others injured.

Despite these signs of things falling apart, many Balkans observers see the "Serbian character and capacity to endure." The worst upheavals seem not to have sown the seeds of revolt.

"It could be worse" is a frequently-heard comment. Encouraged by blanket nationalism in the government-controlled news media, few citizens swerve from the defiant view that Serbs are victims and that the wars in Croatia and Bosnia are just.

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