Serbs line up for fuel, cigarettes

Civilians feel the pinch as NATO bombs disrupt supplies and prices rise

War In Yugoslavia

May 10, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- For Zoran Slavkovic, smoking is now a matter of patriotic pride.

With cigarettes in short supply and NATO bombs falling, Slavkovic is among the three-pack-a-day smokers suffering during wartime. He could purchase U.S.-made cigarettes on the black market, yet prefers waiting in lines for up to four hours to buy the cheaper, harsher-tasting local brands.

"If I have to die, it's better to get cancer from our cigarettes," the 66-year-old pensioner says.

On Serbia's home front, shopping is now a contact sport, with residents enduring long lines to secure two precious Balkan commodities -- cigarettes and fuel. The clamor for both products is so intense that lines form when there is even a rumor that a fresh supply of cigarettes or gas is on the way to an outdoor kiosk or pump.

Even Yugoslavia's vaunted black market of sidewalk cigarette vendors and shadowy gasoline dealers seems to be suffering from wartime deprivations and the fear of authorities bent on stamping out the trade.

It often takes a recommendation from a friend of a friend and a clandestine late-night meeting to secure a few gallons of diesel. Buying black-market cigarettes is easier, but remains a frustrating experience for those accustomed to lighting up throughout the day.

"It's horrible to be a smoker in Yugoslavia now," says Cvetan Lazovic, a 51-year-old butcher. "Of course, NATO is guilty for everything, including the shortage of cigarettes. Without bombing, there would be no shortage."

The shortages in the two products are tied to a combination of factors in a country desperate to keep its sputtering economy afloat.

During the opening weeks of the war, NATO flattened a cigarette warehouse in Nis, devastating the local supply. Smuggling of Western brands through Montenegro also dried up, as Yugoslavia's second republic attempted to remain out of the war.

Marlboros now cost $14 or more a carton, a hefty price in a society where more than 70 percent are unemployed. Yugoslav brands such as Vek run $4 a carton -- if you can find one.

Even though their country is at war with the West, many smokers are still trying to buy American.

"I'm waiting in line for American cigarettes and I am asking myself, `Am I crazy?' " said Nenand Novakovic, 41, an artist. "I'm very angry with myself for doing this. Like any patriot, I should smoke domestic brands."

When it comes to buying gas, though, consumers have only one choice -- buy local.

The fuel shortage appears directly related to NATO's targeting of the country's oil refineries and plans to impose a blockade. By blowing up the stocks, NATO is attempting to starve the Yugoslav army of precious diesel in a bid to bring tanks, trucks and other vehicles to a stop.

Last month, authorities cut emergency gas rationing in half, limiting civilian drivers to 20 liters of fuel a month -- slightly more than 5 gallons.

At the pump, gas remains cheap -- 40 cents a liter. But it can often take hours to reach the front of the line and hardly any diesel is available. Coupons are often resold for double the pump price.

But the real markup occurs on the black market, with prices soaring to $1.65 a liter.

Yet it's difficult to find black-market fuel as authorities zealously track the trade in a bid to stamp out inflation and wartime profiteering.

It's a far cry from the early 1990s, when Yugoslavia's smugglers broke trade sanctions to import fuel. Then, fuel poured into the country from Hungary and Romania, by car, bus and ship. Makeshift pipelines were reportedly dug beneath borders.

Now, only small-time smugglers are bringing in fuel, reputedly from Bosnia, Macedonia and Romania. The shortages have left drivers frustrated and roads emptier than usual. Used-car prices are reportedly dropping.

Civilians are striving to adapt.

"I don't even have enough gas to visit my cousins outside of Belgrade," says Sava Radovanovic, 44, a bread and beer salesman. "I am now only driving in cases of emergency. Gas is important, but we must get used to living without it."

Zorica Zrnic, a 34-year-old teacher, has cut down on her driving and commutes to work on faltering public transportation.

"Social life almost doesn't exist anymore," she says. "A lot of things can't function without the gas. Will the public services stop working?"

Djordje Pantovic, 52, a businessman, laments what the gas crisis has done to the country.

"Everything has changed in this country because of the gas," he says. "I cannot work without gas, and probably many others can't work either. Because of the shortage, everyone who is able to work is losing a lot of money."

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