Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 6, 2 August 1999

in Serbia, nobody believes that reconstruction is possible without foreign assistance T H E   V I E W   F R O M   S E R B I A:
Twilight Zone or Dead Zone?
Serbia needs help not isolation

Slavko Zivanov

A mere ten years ago, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRJ) was a country of twenty million "Yugoslavs," a term which then covered Serbs, Croats, Macedonians, Slovenes, Montenegrins and approximately 30 other national groups which lived in "fraternity and unity." That country was closer to Western Europe in outlook than any other in Eastern Europe. When Communism fell, this cosmopolitan state should have been in a prime position to integrate into a new Europe; instead, the SFRJ disintegrated in the worst possible manner - into war, ethnic cleansing, religious bigotry and the politics of apartheid.

The erosion of the SFRJ and the independence process of some of the republics continues, and the final round of cards from the Balkan deck has yet to be dealt. It is not impossible that the surrounding territories will be further reshaped. Geo-political analysts may find these facts challenging and intriguing, but for the people who live in this region these changes bring only one thing: pure, endless misfortune.

Of all the Balkan countries, Serbia has ended up with the worst opportunities for development and reconstruction and has the least stability of life on a day-to-day level. It has been argued that this dire situation is proportional to the country's culpability in initiating the wars of this decade, and because of this the suffering of the country and its people may be deemed to be just and fair. However, to decide if this thesis is really factually and morally valid, we need to ascertain first what the suffering of the Serb people is exactly and secondly if there is a collective guilt which can be laid on the Serb people commensurate with this suffering.

Measures of suffering

The NATO intervention in the Balkans has brought not just emotional suffering to Serbia but real damage to the tune of USD 100 billion (according to independent estimates). Social and economic problems have been accumulating for more than 50 years in Serbia, and these, together with the latest devastation of what remained of the economy, have resulted in an enormous increase in unemployment. Approximately 40% of the potential workforce is without a job, and a large proportion of those formally employed have literally lost a place to work at.

The remaining part of the population earns an average of 60 DM per month. Inflation is ever present, and the hard currency rates on the black market are twice as high as the official ones. The capacity of the power stations for the forthcoming winter will not satisfy more than 70% of the country's needs. Dissatisfaction grows every day, and tension manifests itself in the form of riots.

The rule of Slobodan Milosevic and his state administration react rigidly to any attempt to solve these problems, using repression and brutality.

A country of relatively rich resources, especially agricultural ones, is standing on the edge of hunger, and the agricultural sector itself is being systematically annihilated year by year. In Serbia - and particularly in Vojvodina, which is similar to Kosovo in being an "autonomous region" within Yugoslavia - agricultural produce is being sold for considerably lower prices than that of neighbouring countries. It is bought by prominent officials who then sell it abroad (legally or otherwise) at the actual, international prices, with the profit ending up in their foreign accounts.

It is widely suspected that even Serb Prime Minister Mirko Marjanovic has been actively involved in these exports. The affair has been something of a scandal in Serbia, but there have been no legal or any other real consequences for him or his enterprise.

A similar situation arose with Vice-President of the Serb government Dragan Tomic, who is also the director of a household furnishings factory Simpo. He remains in his position and continues to export certain quantities of wheat through his operations. All agricultural produce sold by the state has to be paid for in cash and under very unfavourable circumstances.

Meanwhile the state is purchasing produce from farmers at an unacceptably low prices. The payment procedure itself lasts for months, and it is not unusual that payment fails to arrive in full. This state of affairs is supported by the very restrictive legislature which limits who is able to buy agricultural products; it is, in essence, an officially sanctioned cartel.

Since payment is rarely honoured, inflation is high and the prices unacceptably low, it is hardly surprising that most farmers are losing out on half the value of their crops, or even less. The UN sanctions have also played a certain role in this and made most livestock breeders bankrupt, while the officials protected by the state-sanctioned monopoly are still laughing all the way to the bank and become even more devoted to the regime that has made this profits for them.

Even though farmers do not get a chance to make a profit, they will, at least, always produce enough for themselves; however, the same cannot be said of labourers. There is usually only one or at the most two family members employed, and it is not exceptional that the parents support their offspring into their thirties, and provide support for their aged or sick elders. Both education and health care are in a catastrophic situation, and the hospitals lack even elementary sanitary equipment.

This pathetic condition is exacerbated by the government's incompetence in solving economic problems due to its excessive concern with "higher interests" - in other words, the nation's survival and its struggle against the "global conspiracy."

The rising tide

But now such excuses are running thin. Despite the fact that the tide of democracy in Serbia is solely focused on demanding Milosevic's resignation, and although the majority of the electorate is against his policies, and indeed against the man himself, Milosevic stays in power by means of the strong police machinery, the high-ranking military officials in his pocket and his strict control of the media and business interests. This will not last.

Today, the Serbs are a frustrated people entering the period of strong nationalistic hangover; they are aware of the necessity to change the regime. An alternative to Milosevic's autocracy exists at the very core of Serb society and always has done, though any legitimate form of this opposition has, until recently, remained out of sight to the Western media.

It is certainly realistic to expect that the social protests in Serbia will gather pace. At a certain point they will reach a critical mass, at which point, they will result either in a peaceful and constitutional change of government or an eruption of uncontrollable energy manifested as force and revolution. This is the main topic of discussion on the streets these days, and it is a subject which arises more and more often in everyday conversation, at home, at work or between friends.

Disappointed by the fact that there is no relevant organisation which could represent extensive public interests on the political scene, the vast majority of Serbs have to look elsewhere to vent their desire for change. Soldiers drafted from the military reserves are protesting against the lack of compensation for earnings they lost while in the army and on the front lines. These are, in effect, social protests. In the opinion of the man on the street, these demonstrations are not about the issue itself but provide an occasion to rally.

The situation is now lower than rock bottom, and people are afraid that they put their existence in jeopardy simply by doing nothing about it.

There is no doubt that the few Deutschmarks they earn could not possibly be a long term solution for the individual problems shared by 95% of the Serb population. The soldiers' dissatisfaction can encourage others, and supposing that this dissatisfaction is channelled and well organised, it might bring pressure on the regime to resign. If this happens in disarray and with a tendency towards destruction rather than reconstruction, the Serb drama will continue.

Organised opposition fails

Although anti-Milosevic tendencies gather pace, the opposition is in a constant quest for satisfaction of its leaders' egotistical interests. It might be too extreme to say that the opposition leaders in Serbia are solely interested in personal benefit and economic profit, but it is definitely not far from the truth.

The opposition in Serbia nowadays mostly suggests models for the transitory government and state institutions which will provide Serbs with free elections. Unfortunately, it has not acted towards gaining more widespread support amongst the electorate, nor indeed has it formulated ideas about how this might be done.

Naturally, one cannot talk generally about all of the opposition in Serbia, but when we consider the major opposition parties, the above mentioned characteristics are certainly valid. While Milosevic attempts to remain in power, and while the very few opposition leaders that do exist fight only for themselves, the state, society and, above all, the citizens' lives decay at the very bottom of this dark and dank pit of misery.

Serbia faces more uncertain days and maybe even worse than that. Local attempts to reconstruct the war damage have been reduced to the rebuilding of only the highest priority sites and the adaptation of the least damaged buildings. Such ventures are symbolic and cannot significantly improve the image of Serbia.

The economy was so weak that it would have collapsed with or without the bombardment. The bombing has only obviated its natural course of breakdown. Nobody sane and of sound mind believes that reconstruction in Serbia is possible without foreign assistance.

The international community should actively participate in this process if it truly seeks to defuse the tinderbox of Europe that is the Balkans. The Yugoslavs have once again proved that they cannot resolve their own problems. What is more, the international community has illustrated its aspiration to attempt to solve the problems of the Balkans - yet it refuses to constructively tackle the problems of the most problematic country.

It is hardly surprising then that listening in on the conversations of the people from the ex-SFRJ, one hears far too often that all we have ever been is just a group of guinea-pigs in the laboratory of a group of powerful and influential professors testing their own theories and personal projects.

Slavko Zivanov, 30 July 1999




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