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

Serbia's State Swindle

Serbia is short-changing its citizens in almost every aspect of their lives, but still promises to rebuild everything.
By Milenko Vasovic
At first sight Serbia still resembles a normal country. It has a government, police and laws, and claims to guarantee its citizens a wide range of freedoms and rights. In practice, however, nothing works properly.



If you retire, there is no pension. If you win the lottery, there is no prize. If you fall ill and go to hospital, there is no medicine. "Nema" - that is "There is none", is the only explanation.



Milena Vasic, 61, retired in January 1997. However, she has yet to receive a single pension payment. Indeed, the farmers' pension fund, which should be paying her pension, has failed to pay out anything to any of the several dozen thousand pensioners whose pensions it supposedly manages since December 1996.



Other pensioners in Serbia are more fortunate and continue to receive their pensions - which average 90 German marks a month - but they come four months late. Moreover, every year they can expect the state to "steal" two or three monthly payments from them.



According to Miodrag Djuric, President of Serbia's Independent Union of Pensioners, it is difficult to work out the extent of the debt to the pensioners, since some money is already siphoned off simply by the accounting system.



It is now common to see pensioners rummaging through rubbish containers or begging is now a common sight, such is the difficult situation they find themselves in. Some have found the struggle for existence too degrading and have chosen to commit suicide rather than battle on.



Teachers and civil servants have not been paid for three months now. Disability benefits are being paid seven months late, and child benefits more than a year late.



Meanwhile, increasingly frustrated people grumble that if they owe the state taxes, electricity and other utility bills, then interest is added to their debt, but when the state owes them money no interest accrues.



The state's indebtedness to its own citizens is already on a scale which few in Serbia believe can ever be repaid. It includes some 7 billion German marks held in foreign currency savings accounts which "disappeared" with the outbreak of war in the former Yugoslavia in 1991, and another billion German marks invested in Dafiment Bank, a private group set up by entrepreneurs close to the regime.



Dafinment Bank attracted customers by offering especially high interest rates, but then collapsed. The debts of the bank's customers remain unpaid, the courts have ruled in favour of the customers, but there is no one to implement the rulings.



The Serbian government generally manages to keep the judiciary in check. But if the courts defy authority and rule in favour of people deemed undesirable by the regime, then implementation becomes impossible. The police, whose help would be needed to ensure that decisions are implemented, simply refuse to become involved.



The case of the Yugoslav Institute for Journalism, which was expelled from its premises by a relation of Yugoslav Vice President Nikola Sainovic, is illustrative. The institute took its case to court and won, but the decision has not been implemented, effectively rendering it meaningless.



Another state scam is the national lottery which last year encouraged Serbs to bet on the football World Cup in France. The competition proved popular and large numbers of participants believed that, according to the rules of the game, they stood to win a tidy sum of money. However, there were no pay-outs. Instead, the national lottery issued a statement to the effect that the system had been too easy and that therefore there would be no prizes.



National lottery director Ratibor Grujic, who is also associated with the Partizan football club, is a well-connected member of the regime. Moreover, the national lottery has promised to help buy flats for the families of killed policemen and thus benefits from police protection and support. Lottery "winners" have no choice but to accept that they will not receive anything.



Medical care should be free for all those with health insurance. However, when one gets ill one must dip deep into one's pocket, since the hospitals lack medicines and operating instruments. Since doctors' salaries are low and irregular, it has become customary for patients to have to tip them in hard currency for treatment.



All Serbian citizens with a car are entitled to coupons for twenty litres of petrol a month. However, despite official promises that there would be fuel for everybody, possession of the coupons is not of itself any guarantee of getting petrol. Indeed, the black market appears to be the way that most people buy petrol, because there has been virtually no fuel since the beginning of the NATO bombing.



The regime also promised salaries for the soldiers who were mobilised to fight against NATO. However, when the war ended, it turned out that, once again, there was no money and the state could not fulfill its promise. Hence the protests of reservists in Kragujevac, Kraljevo and Cacak, as well as a hunger strike in Nis.



The soldiers have been cheated in yet another way. During the conflict with NATO, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic announced awards for more than 4,000 people. In practice, however, these awards exist only on paper, because the state does not have money to produce the medals.



Even Serbia's more well-to-do have lost out to the state. The best illustration of this are the dozens of unfinished residential and office buildings in Belgrade. The many partially built flats, which will not be completed, have all been paid for in advance. The construction companies are all state-owned.



In every conceivable area of life, the standard of services is disintegrating by the day. State-owned banks manage to "lose" people's salaries, state-run bus companies cancel routes without notice and state-owned, refuse-collection companies fail to clear the rubbish.



Meanwhile, the state promises that Serbia will rebuild everything.



Milenko Vasovic is an independent journalist from Belgrade.

More IWPR's Global Voices