Yugoslavia's new rich live it up amid hard times DATELINE: YUGOSLAVIA

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

August 31, 1993|By Dusko Doder | Dusko Doder,Contributing Writer

SVETI STEFAN, Yugoslavia -- The Montenegro Riviera. The name conjures up a star-studded past: It was the luxury retreat of Yugoslav kings and queens, the playground of such stars as Sophia Loren and Richard Burton.

But this summer even package-tour foreign tourists have been scared away by the Bosnian war. The charming resort villages and sun-drenched beaches have been taken over by Serbian mobsters and war plunderers acting like caricatures from bad U.S. gangster movies.

This is the New Class of what remains of Yugoslavia: now a union of two republics, Serbia and Montenegro.

Unlike the original Communist New Class made famous by dissident Milovan Djilas, this elite does not hide its wealth. It flaunts it and makes little secret of its dubious sources -- from oil smuggling and gun-running to paramilitary plunder in Bosnia and Croatia.

"You want a case of Marlboros from Italy? A new Mercedes? Come to me and I can get you anything, U.N. sanctions don't apply to me," boasted one typical guy who called himself "Toma" in the bar of Milocer's Maestral Hotel.

He was wearing a Giorgio Armani suit and dark sunglasses. His (( gun holster was clearly visible as he peeled a 100-mark note off a bulging wad to pay for his vodka. His white Maserati was parked nearby.

During the day, this New Class packs the beaches, self-consciously posing in designer bikinis and swimsuits. By night they gamble in the casinos, which accept foreign currency only. The bars charge London prices, foreign currency only.

While the three exclusive Sveti Stefan hotels are packed with the newly rich, the rest of Montenegro's hotels and beaches are virtually empty.

The ordinary Yugoslav now has a salary of less than $10 a month. Yugoslavia, squeezed by war and United Nations sanctions, is in the grip of a hyperinflation that Western diplomats estimate at over 1.5 billion percent a year. The Serb on the street cannot afford to spend a night even in a second-class hotel in nearby Budva.

Only three years ago, a beach vacation in Montenegro or Croatia's Dalmatian coast was well within most Yugoslav budgets. Many traveled farther afield: Italy, northern Greece, Tunisia, even Bali or Thailand.

But today even a Dalmatian coast vacation seems like an impossible dream for some 400,000 Belgraders who flock daily to a small beach on Gypsy Island in the Sava River near the city.

"Remember the days when we could get on a train in the evening and the next morning be in [the Croatian resort of] Split?" a Belgrade disc jockey asked wistfully on his radio show this week as temperatures soared over 95 degrees.

For those who refuse to bathe in the muddy waters off Gypsy Island, the way to escape the Belgrade heat is to visit relatives in the countryside. Such a trip is also an economic necessity.

For a vast majority of Serbs, the villages are the only sources of provisions for the coming winter. People returning to Belgrade are hauling sacks of potatoes, onions, pepper, apples and flour.

Shops in Belgrade are fast emptying. What remains available can be bought only at astronomical prices. It is common for prices to double between morning and afternoon: They sometimes go up 1,000 percent. Cash registers cannot cope with the mounting number of zeros -- the latest note is a billion dinars, worth about $4.

One government employee described how he gets by. He lives with his grandmother and said they earn about $14 a month, combining his salary and her pension of $1.50. "We eat meat once a week as a treat now," he said.

"And even though we are not religious, we have taken to fasting on . . . Friday." A holiday is out of the question.

As bad as things are, few people in Serbia blame Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's policies for their helter-skelter degradation.

But there is growing resentment against the New Class of super-rich. Even the government supervised press has started condemning the "super-rich" and their habit of spending the equivalent of a person's pension for a single piece of cake on the Montenegrin Riviera or in Belgrade's two luxury hotels, the Hyatt and the Intercontinental.

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