Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

More Freedom Less Bread

Serbia's citizens may have gained their freedom, but their stomachs remain empty.
By Zeljko Cvijanovic

With Slobodan Milosevic behind bars, the majority of Serbians no longer live in fear.


But the marked deterioration in the economy since the former Yugoslav president was overthrown, is eating into hope.


"We've gained freedom but we have no bread," said Zdravko Colak, a Belgrade worker.


In the past six months, the price of commodities has risen sharply. The price of bread, for instance, has increased six-fold. Colak says his family's monthly outgoings have risen by about 50 per cent.


Serbia is desperate for international financial assistance to resuscitate its moribund economy. Much of the impetus for Milosevic's arrest at the weekend was a US threat to renege on $50 million of aid. All eyes are now on Washington to see whether it will now release the money.


Serbian minister of finance Bozidar Djelic says over $1 billion in aid reached the country after Milosevic was deposed, but more than a third of the money went towards imports of electric power to cover winter power shortfalls in Serbia.


"The previous government taught us to be happy when there were no bombs or war, the current one is teaching us to be happy when there is electricity," said Colak.


Most of the foreign aid went to cover peoples' immediate needs. Nothing was invested. Like other countries in transition, Serbia has fallen into the trap of using donations to buy social peace.


Dissatisfied by the speed of recent changes, unions have started to organise protests and strikes and are embarking on a serious confrontation with the government.


Teachers are on strike amd other public sector workers are threatening to do so, following the imposition of a government pay freeze.


"I am not interested in reading daily reports in the newspapers about what Milosevic's cronies stole," said Danica Spasojevic, a postal clerk. "I want to know when things will improve for us."


Between Milosevic's downfall and parliamentary elections last December, most of the money that flowed into the country was used to bolster support for the former president's opponents.


People experienced an immediate rise in living standards. And there were hopes that economic reform would not be too painful nor take too long. This optimism was fuelled by certain over optimistic government ministers.


Three months on, however, the aid money has been spent. Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, writing in the Belgrade weekly Vreme, called on people to be patient and frugal.


"For ten years we were asked to be frugal," said Spasojevic. "Even if we wanted to, there is nothing left to sacrifice or save."


Hopes of reform have been undermined by the government's apparent preparedness to afford protection to a large number of rich turncoats. "How can we believe in change when the Serbian nouveau riche, who became rich with Milosevic's support, are now [Yugoslav President Vojislav] Kostunica protégés, " said a journalist in a Belgrade daily paper.


Milosevic supporters are clearly exploiting the discontent. At a rally in the centre of Belgrade a week ago, Aleksandar Vucic, one of the deputy leaders in Vojislav Seselj's Radical Party and a former minister of information under Milosevic, accused the Djindjic government of raising taxes to pay for more than 300,000 families now living below the poverty line.


"Does anyone remember the 100-dinar mobile phone tax?" Vucic asked the crowd, reminding them of the then opposition's hostility to the tax. "Not only did the new democratic government fail to abolish it as it falsely said it would. It has increased the tax two-fold."


Milisav Krkobabic, a pensioner from New Belgrade and a staunch supporter of the old regime, said, "I know that under Milosevic I paid two-and-a-half dinars for bread. Under the new government I have to pay 12 dinars. And they've now announced that it will go up even more."


Sociologist Slobodan Antonic warns that the economic woes could bolster support for the opposition in the next elections, due at the end of 2001. They may well be further helped if, as many people suspect, the ruling DOS coalition splits because of growing differences between Kostunica and Djindjic.


Some fear that no one will get an absolute majority and that Kostunica might be tempted to form a coalition government with Milosevic's Socialist Party, destroying everything that's been achieved since the October Revolution.


Zeljko Cvijanovic is a regular IWPR contributor.


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