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

Plenty Of Bread For The Happy Folk In The Wonderful World Of RTS TV Serbia

According to the regime media, the poor are eating better than ever before in a wonderful TV world where Serb society flourishes and happy workers rebuild their communities. Small wonder people want to check out of the real Serbia and move into the virtua
By Vlado Mares

'I want to emigrate to the Serbia shown on RTS TV prime time news,' reads one of the wittier slogans used by the anti-regime protestors in Serbia today.

Two worlds co-exist in Serbia. First, the Serbia of state-run RTS TV, where all is well with the country and the people eat and live well under the regime of Slobodan Milosevic. Then there is the real world, where a Belgrade textile worker earned just 1.4 dinars a day in July - at the official rate, barely 12 US cents - less than half the cost of a single loaf of state subsidised bread.

Average wages are 20 times lower than wages in Portugal, where they are the lowest in the European Union. Everybody makes ends meet with second jobs. A dental technician earning less than 80 German marks a month can make twice as much working for a private dentist, charging between 15 and 20 German marks for a filling.

University graduates give private lessons for between five and 10 German marks for two lessons. Others clean apartments for between eight and 15 marks a home. Some pick apples for one and a half marks an hour.

Dealers in hard currency can make up to 50 marks a day, while illegal cigarettes and petrol sellers scrape by on between ten and 20 marks. This contrasts sharply with the income of a medial specialist working at Belgrade's top rated city Clinical Centre, must work up to five days to match the income of a currency dealer - while a primary school teacher would have to work for a fortnight to earn the same.

It is not surprising people would wish to flee the real world for the virtual Serbia of RTV, where everything is more or less nice, proud and promising.

This world is the creation of a state-endorsed media campaign, entitled 'The Reconstruction Of The Country From The Consequences Of NATO Aggression'. Regular news broadcasts usually feature top state officials surrounded by smiling happy people, on some new construction site or the re-opening of some reconstructed factory.

Even Milosevic is making rare public appearances in support of the campaign. He was filmed opening the reconstructed oil refinery in Pancevo on September 29.

"Today," he said, musically, "the first of hundreds and thousands of tonnes of oil has begun to flow to fields planted with sunflowers and beets, to the roads, to industry." That way, he said, Serbia can show how "we are able to return with our own means, the vital functions they tried to deny us forever."

In the same town, on October 3, Serbian President Milan Milutinovic opened the construction of a 4.5 kilometre-long stretch of motorway, telling his audience that "we are embarking on the reconstruction and building of the infrastructure independently and harmoniously."

State TV turned this into a major spectacle. Milosevic and Milutinovic - both accused of war crimes and barred from travel abroad - became stars of their own propaganda.

The reality was neatly illustrated by an article in the daily Blic on October 5, headlined 'Movie Extras On The Land Of The Late Mr. Hinic'. It described how a film crew turned up to record the supposed start of the reconstruction of a bombed out home, watched by local factory workers bussed in for the occasion. Filming over, the workers and the TV crew were shipped out again. Days later the site remains exactly as they left it with no sign of more work to be done.

Officials find it hard to resist joining the parade. The Minister of Science and Technology of Serbia, Branislav Ivkovic, claims that foreign companies are anxious to invest in Serbia, even in secret.

"A large number of companies from Italy, Russia and Greece, even from the US, are already around, even today, and are considering investment and concessions in Serbia, but must hide that interest for political reasons," Ivkovic said. But, he added, firms in search of a fast buck would be kept at bay, for the Government of Serbia will not allow "the robbery of the country."

The opposition and the independent media do what they can to bring the people round to reality. The Democratic Party of Serbia, claims that the government has been able to put barely 400,000 marks into the reconstruction, that the works are progressing on credit, if at all, and that nationwide, the standard of living and the economy as a whole have suffered a two-digit fall on last year.

The Democratic Alternative party describes an economy starved by 'quasi patriotism', deliberately depriving citizens of foreign funds, whether investment capital, financial aid or credits from international finance institutions. Instead, they say, the regime continues to keep the citizens of Serbia in thrall to the domestic mafia and their favourites among the nouveau riche

But the sharpest blow to Milosevic's virtual reality came from the Minister for Work and Social Affairs Predrag Drecun in Montenegro, Serbia's junior partner in the rump Yugoslav federation.

He reported last month that more than 1,000 private entrepreneurs from Serbia had transferred their businesses to Montenegro over the past several months to take advantage of the fairer and more rational trading environment there. The value of the business moved south was worth more than 100 million marks.

"Private business in Serbia is exposed to serious problems - unless their owners are members of (Milosevic's) Socialist Party of Serbia or the Yugoslav Left (run by his wife, Mira)," Drecun said. For those who have not moved out of Serbia, are not members of Slobodan or Mira's political parties, are not smugglers or local mafiosi, all that remains is the message from the state media.

The poor eat more bread, and they eat more healthily.

Vlado Mares is a journalist for the Belgrade independent news agency BETA.