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

Serbia's Disappearing Aid

Bureaucratic obstruction and rife corruption hinder the delivery of aid supplies to those most in need across Yugoslavia.
By Vlado Mares

Four buses loaded with blankets and pillows donated to the Serbian town of Kikinda by the Norwegian government are parked at Kelebija, on the Yugoslav-Hungarian border, awaiting permission to travel on.


Kikinda is a small town nearly 100 kilometres north of Belgrade, where political opponents of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic hold power in the local administration.


The blankets and pillows are intended for refugees in the town and for the local hospital. The four buses are for use as school buses.


Dusan Tolicki, leader of the Kikinda local government, said documentation for the aid shipment had been submitted twice to the humanitarian bureau of the Red Cross, the Yugoslav federal ministry for foreign trade and the Yugoslav secretariat for refugees and displaced persons. No response has been received.


The stalemate over the buses echoes the difficulties of the European Union's "Energy for Democracy" scheme, intended to give heat, and support, to opposition-controlled towns. The tortuous progress of EU fuel shipments to Nis and Pirot in November and December last year gained wide coverage in the Serbian independent print and broadcast media. People were keen to see whether the shipments would succeed in running the gauntlet of rapacious state officials and cronies renowned for stealing whatever they like.


There is every reason to expect as much. During 1995 and 1996, when Serbian refugees from Croatia and Bosnia were being sent to Kosovo by the Serbian government, one aid worker in Belgrade, who wished to remain anonymous, claimed that less than a tenth of the aid shipments reached their intended recipients.


Almost all aid in Kosovo was distributed through the Red Cross. Bodgan Kecman was head of the local Red Cross in Kosovo at the time. In 1997 he became the director of Jugopetrol in Kosovo, a move some observers claim was a reward from the Milosevic regime. Kecman is also believed to have appeared in Belgrade in 1997 toting a gun and tracking a Swedish aid official who had accused him of stealing supplies.


Besides providing a good income for those who misappropriate such aid supplies, the Belgrade government benefits from the false impression created when these products appear on otherwise empty shop shelves.


Indeed, all forms of humanitarian aid supplies can be found on sale in markets and shops in Serbia. In early 1999 Italian pasta intended for refugees and the socially deprived, could be found on the shelves in "C-Market" supermarkets.


"C-Market" is owned by Slobodan Radulovic, until recently a minister in the government of Serbian Prime Minister Mirko Marjanovic. Radulovic is on the list of Yugoslav officials banned from traveling in the EU.


Financial aid also seems to have a hard time reaching its intended destination. Hard-currency awards to the various humanitarian programmes can only be used after being converted into dinars at the official exchange rate and, exclusively, at the Belgrade Commercial Bank. The official exchange rate is currently six dinars to one German mark (DM), four times lower than that offered on the black market. Ljuba Mihajlovic, director of the Commercial Bank, is also on the EU banned list.


Given the cash-strapped nature of the Yugoslav government, it is unlikely the administration will change its grasping attitude towards humanitarian aid deliveries. But as yet international donors and aid workers have not issued any public or official protest.


But there have been indications in recent months that donors are seriously concerned that their continued efforts are merely lining the pockets of the Milosevic regime while bringing minimal assistance to those in need.


In November 1999 Michael Graham, EU representative in Belgrade, accused Vojislav Seselj - Milosevic's coalition partner - of distributing humanitarian aid packages to state officials in Zemun, using the supplies as replacements for their wages.


Vladan Batic, co-ordinator for the opposition Alliance for Changes, claimed that 2.5 million DM sent to pay for heating for refugees from Kosovo had disappeared. Milan Protic, a senior member of the Alliance, reported hearing similar complaints during a visit to the US.


The World Food Programme predicted in November 1999 that more than 1 million people in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (excluding Kosovo and Montenegro) will be eligible for food aid during the first six months of 2000. In the current circumstances, such aid would be more likely to stock Serbia's marketplaces, rather than reach the needy directly.


The government does not seem concerned that few people can afford to shop at the markets. What matters is the image of abundance shown on state television, to which misdirected international aid so readily contributes.


Vlado Mares is a journalist working in Belgrade.