The demise of Serbia

Belgrade market woman
Belgrade market woman (Flickr/jaime.silva)

In 1992, the United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions on rump Yugoslavia for its role in the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The strict UN embargo has had devastating effects on the economies of the two remaining republics in the Yugoslav Federation: Serbia and Montenegro. All trade with foreign countries has stopped. Today, over 90% of the population lives below the poverty line. This is the story of three middle-class families in Serbia.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: April 30, 1994


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “The Demise of Serbia”. The programme is produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

Nearly two years ago, the United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions on rump Yugoslavia for its role in the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The strict UN embargo has had devastating effects on the economies of the two remaining republics in the Yugoslav Federation: Serbia and Montenegro. All trade with foreign countries has stopped. Industrial output has plummeted, and rump Yugoslavia – once one of the richest regions in the former East Bloc – has become the poorest country in Europe. The government of Serbian President Slobodan Milošević (1941-2006) has attributed the economic collapse exclusively to the UN sanctions. But other factors also played a role: the loss of trade with the other republics in the former Yugoslavia because of the war and the country’s massive military spending. The most serious, long-term effect of the economic devastation has been the demise of the middle class. Today, over 90% of the population lives below the poverty line. This is the story of three of these middle-class families.

The Petrovićs are a typical young middle-class family in the Serbian capital Belgrade. The husband is a pilot for JAT, the national airline, which has been grounded ever since the sanctions were imposed two years ago. He still receives his monthly salary of 42 new dinars, that’s about 25 dollars a month, a fraction of what it was in the good days, before the way. His wife, Vanja, is a dentist, but she can’t find work, so she volunteers full time at Belgrade University’s dental clinic.

Well our life has changed a lot although I don’t like to complain because I still want to make the best of my living in this given situation. But comparing to three years ago, it has changed a lot, although gradually, but we dropped a lot. I was working. I was getting paid for my work. My husband being a pilot with a good wage, now with almost nothing. Our parents is supporting us a little bit although they don’t get any more. We’re not starving, but we don’t have the things that we had before. EB: Would you have the same type of life if your parents weren’t around? No, of course not. It would be much worse. At least we have a place to live. We can’t afford now to rent an apartment as we used to. It would be much worse. They are helping us, and it’s what’s keeping us still floating. EB: How do you get enough money to actually buy food and things like that? We sold our car and sold my piano. So we still have some money that we earned before. We were paid well three years ago. My husband was a pilot, and I was a dentist, and also before I graduated, I worked as a stewardess. So we did have money. We so we saved some money because we were saving to buy an apartment, to get a loan from the bank. Now we are using that money to make our living. EB: Do you have trouble buying  food? Is there enough food available in the stores?There isn’t. There were times when you couldn’t get anything in the store, but you could get it on the street for extremely high price. But the thing is that we bought some things before. So we have a few sacks of flour, a few sacks of sugar and a couple of kilos of salt, things like that which we never had before. EB: Can you show me?Yeah, of course. EB: So, this is a storeroom basically.Yes, so bicycles are here. I didn’t say a good thing. When we sold the car, it’s a bad thing. But a good thing is we bought good bicycles. So it’s our means of transport now. So, it’s a sack of flour. It’s a sack of sugar being used. It’s not full. It’s a couple of kilos of salt. EB: Let me see, there are 12 boxes here.Yeah, but small. It’s half of sugar and half of salt. So that’s all we have left. We don’t have a full refrigerator like we had before. It’s all what we have. We don’t go regularly in the stores to buy like milk. There are days when we don’t have milk. When I think of that, it makes me mad because I don’t have kids, but it makes me mad because people that have kids don’t have milk every day. It makes me sad. It makes me furious. EB: So what do you do with the salt and the flour and everything? Do you make bread yourself now?Of course. We make good bread. We make good bread. EB: Did you have to learn how to make it? Of course. EB: You didn’t use to do this before, obviously. No, no, although I have a good cookbook. I have a good cookbook, and we try to make it different ways so it’s not the same all the time. It turns out good. EB: How do you get around now? You showed me the bikes that you have. You said that you sold your car a couple of years ago. How do you get around in town, for example? For example, if I go to work, I cannot use my bike. It’s far away, and I have to wait for the bus. When you go to the bus…first, you cannot get into the bus unless you are strong enough and unless you are in the first row and unless enough people get out from the bus. So you jump in and you squeeze yourself and sometimes you get kicked in kidneys and you get stepped on your feet. But it’s like…people are trying to get into the bus but not to kick you hard. I mean, it’s kind of normal.

EB: OK, let me turn to your sister now. Your sister is visiting from Australia. You left Yugoslavia 2.5 years ago. For you, obviously, things have changed much more because you’ve come back and you’ve seen a totally different situation. The first couple of days, I was so sad and I cried, I have to admit it, because I cannot be happy that I escaped, that I am overseas, abroad. But I am sad for all my friends here that cannot afford to have a normal life, to live. When I think about my friends, they are 28 years old. They are still living with their parents. They cannot afford to buy anything. For the first couple of days, I was in shock. I couldn’t believe the price of food and the price of for example fruit and bananas are five, ten times more expensive than in Australia. So comparing the salary over there and things what I can buy here, I couldn’t afford it, and it’s very sad, very sad. My sister explained to me – I was surprised how she’s very calm about it. She doesn’t react as much as me, and she explained to me that for example when you put a frog in cold water and heat the water slowly, heat it up, the frog wouldn’t jump out because she would adapt and accept the heat of the water. But if you put the frog in boiling, hot water, she would jump out, and I felt like a frog that was just put in hot water. My sister told me they are already cooked. They don’t feel those things any more. EB: What do you talk about when you are with your friends and your sister here? Is it only about the economic situation and the war in Bosnia? Oh no, they are trying so hard not to talk about politics when I’m around because then I get upset. I get sad. So everybody is trying to show themselves in the best way they can. At the beginning, I was thinking I go to my friends’ place. They offer me to stay for lunch. I felt very guilty eating the food they have planned for next week. I felt very bad, even having a cup of coffee at somebody’s place. As a foreigner, you don’t see those little things that I can see, like at my friend’s place, I used bathroom, and I saw two types of toilet paper: one is called embargo paper, and the other one is normal toilet paper. The friend of mine explained to me that… EB: What is the embargo paper?Embargo paper is little pieces of newspapers, cut newspapers. So it’s not normally…in Western Europe, people say recycled, good paper, but it’s just cuts of newspaper that people use. And the other one is for guests. EB: So they’re always trying to show their best side. Exactly. They are always trying  not to be sad, not to be upset. That’s only what they have left is to enjoy that cup of coffee they have with you. They will not have a cup of coffee alone in my view and enjoy it to one cup of coffee a day.

EB: What do you do in your free time now? I’m studying. I’m doing my post-graduate studies. I’m spending a lot of time with my good friends, and I’m doing some housework. I enjoy because I made myself think I enjoy it. I’m doing some needlepoint which I didn’t do before. I learned it three months ago, and I find it extremely nerve-setting. So I try to make the best of my living, to have good quality of life because I can’t go to restaurants. I can’t go to movies. I cannot go to theatre. I mean, I can once in six months but not like we used to before. We don’t travel. We don’t go to holidays although we used to travel a lot. We were middle class. We were not over paid, but we were well paid. We were satisfied with our lives. We were optimistic, and we could plan our lives, and we could go anyplace we wanted to go. Now, we feel stuck. It’s sad to have to get visas to go abroad. It’s not the worst thing compared to other people in Yugoslavia. Maybe you will think it’s alright. We’re not starving yet, and we are not having bombs on our heads. So, if we compare ourselves to those people, we consider ourselves lucky. But if we compare our lives to the lives we were living three years ago, it’s bad. So we are deep down.

EB: Your husband also works, but you don’t actually work as a pilot any more. What do you do? Actually I do some things in garage. I make some wooden stuff like beds or furniture. EB: Something that you weren’t used to doing before. Of course because at my job I have enough money to buy it. I don’t have to make it. EB: What do you do to try to make your life a little bit more enjoyable, to give it a little spark? I notice that you are working make-up and you’re looking quite nice actually.The leftovers from the years ago. I’m not buying it anymore. I’m studying. I’m doing my post-graduate. That’s it. EB: Do you see light at the end of the tunnel or do you think this situation is going to last for a long time to come? One day I do, the other day I don’t. So I would really like to know when it will all stop. Like, for example, if I know it will stop in three years, I would make myself surviving for three years. I think this never-ending situation is what is killing us. EB: But people outside say it’s your own fault. It’s the Serbs because they keep on electing the same president, and they are supporting his policies. I have to say…one day, I think, it’s our fault. The other day I think it’s somebody else’s fault.
What I think personally for myself, I think I did my best. I’m not involved in politics, but we have to think of it because we are in that situation. We would never think about politics three years ago because we were living normal lives, but now we have to think of that.
EB: You said you did your best. What did you do? We were going to all anti-war demonstrations, which were a couple of them in Belgrade in past 2.5 years. We are not – how should I say? – not opposition, not government oriented. We are better lives oriented. We would like to live the lives we lived three years ago, and we would like it for all people in Yugoslavia. I don’t think it’s my fault what is going on. I did my best in trying to save my friends. I did my best trying to do all anti-war things I could. We went to elections, all three or four times. EB: You were saying that you and your family have sunk in the past 2.5 years and you’re now almost at rock bottom. Is this rock bottom or can it get any worse? I would like to know. I would like to know because once you hit the bottom, it can’t be worse. It can be better. I would like this to be bottom. A year ago, I thought it’s the bottom but comparing to now, now it’s deep down. It’s worse. I would like to know really where is the bottom? I don’t know. I would like to know. EB: You hit rock bottom when you have to get rid of the bird, right? Yeah, we have a bird, so when he gets mad, I tell him we will make a soup of you. So bird alive means we are still OK.

The decline of the middle class in Serbia and Montenegro accelerated in mid-1993 because of hyperinflation. The government, unable to pay its bills, simply started printing money, and within a few months, the inflation road soared to over a billion percent, comparable only to the Weimar Republic in Germany on the eve of World War Two. For the middle class, it was a constant race against the clock to buy food and other products. Stephan Divanović, a journalist who works for Radio Belgrade, was one of the millions of people who was reduced to poverty because the national currency, the dinar, became worthless.

Everything was in billions of dinars. You went to buy a candle or something or electricity bulb. It would be billions of dinars. You’d pay checks. I think this was a way the government invented to prevent revolt. They allowed us to use checks, bank checks without any cover. So we spent money without any money in the bank. We created money by writing checks in billions of dinars. EB: Do you find that your reaction is quite typical? That people just laugh about it and life goes on, or do you find that people, your friends, are very depressed? Even in this situation, we are a little better off than most other people. Old age pensioners haven’t got this possibility. They wouldn’t be able to go into a bank and to collect 20 or 30 checks to spend. They wouldn’t let them have the checks. So they are miserable, really. I remember there was a story in the newspapers last December of a woman who got out of the bank with 4,800,000 dinars. Because we’ve got all these denominations, so we went into billions and then came back into tens or hundreds of dinars. And then within days again we would be in billions. This was a time when we were in millions. And, for example, a kilo of apples would cost 10 million dinars. But the poor woman went out of the bank with her pension. She had four, I remember 4,800,000 dinars. And she went into a shop and she said I would like to buy a kilo of apples. I saw them this morning. But the shopkeeper said, yes but now it’s 10 million dinars. You haven’t got enough money for a kilo. What should I do? So give me 4,800,000 dinars. So that’s it. They could buy half a kilo of apples for their pensions. And I really don’t know how they lived. Well, some of the humanitarian organisations like Sparna which is sponsored by SPR, the largest opposition party, they distributed food every Saturday and still do. EB: For the old age pensioners. Yeah. Among these people, you could spot retired university professors. I listened to the deputy director of a medical institution being in the queue waiting for free food. That’s it. EB: So not only have you been robbed of your money, you’re also being robbed of your dignity. Yes, very much so.

The spiral of hyperinflation came to an abrupt halt in late January when the government unveiled yet another economic plan which linked the new Yugoslav currency, the super dinar, to the German mark. Wages, which fell to about one dollar in December, shot up to about 50 German marks a month, that’s $30. How long the economic reform plan lasts is anybody’s guess. Most expect it to collapse within a few months. At least people now have enough money to buy food, but Peter Krasulya (sp?), an old age pensioner in his 70s, still remembers the good old days.

Before sanctions, I haven’t problems with all my needs. I could buy everything for living and clothes and go to theatre and excursions and so on. I travelled also to other countries. But now I can’t think about such a time. It’s very difficult. Many problems. EB: Can I ask you how much you receive now?  I received just today one part of the pension of 66 dinars. EB: And what is your full pension? 117. EB: That’s fairly high. It’s high but it is also not enough. EB: How are you able to live then? I can’t buy many things which I have buy before that. So I suffered many things. EB: Do you have enough to eat? Oh yes. Now after the beginning of this reform, of monetary reform, it is much better for us pensioners. So we can buy now everyday needs: milk, bread and some butter. Not much but a little, and can buy newspaper. But before starting of this reform, it is not possible, also for me. EB: How did you make ends meet? Very difficult. I can only say that. EB: A few months ago, did you have enough money to buy food and to pay your bills? A few months ago, it was very, very difficult. There’s only that to say. EB: Are you married? Yes, I’m married. Two children and four grandchildren. EB: Are you receiving help from your children? No, I don’t wish it. EB: But even when it was very difficult, a few months ago, were you getting help? No. I don’t wish. I have to manage my life for myself. Daughter and son, they each have two children, and they also have to work for them and not for me. EB: But if hyperinflation starts again, then it’s going to be very difficult. Oh, we cannot think that it comes again. No. It was terrible.

Most Serbs are able to survive because they saved some foreign currency before the war. Stevan Divanović, for example, besides holding down a job at the state broadcasting company, used to do some freelance work for several foreign radio stations and newspapers. In those days, he earned 1000 marks a month, that’s about 600 dollars. Now he receives about 30 dollars a month. When I met him and his wife in their home in Belgrade, I asked if the economic situation could get any worse.

Yes, yes. It’s always very difficult to envisage where the rock bottom is. But I think we are sinking slowly. You see that there is not enough goods in the market place, in the shops. My wife and myself, we went to a supermarket this morning, a large discount so-called, and we were probably the only people there. There were only about five to six people in a large, huge shop, where there were hundreds, let’s say, two or three years ago. Now people haven’t got enough money, and the shops are empty actually. There is some sugar here, some poor quality apples there, some very expensive fruit juices which nobody can buy. There’s no hope of prices going down. They will go up and up very soon. They will start skyrocketing again. This is just a false lull in this bad dream. EB: Did you used to go out often? Did you go to the movies and the theatre? No, no. Not for the last two years. EB: But before, in the good times? Yes, of course, we used to go out. But for the last two years, I’m just not in the mood to go. I don’t want to go out. I feel much better to stay at home because of everything I am surrounded with. EB: What type of things? Everything. I mean some strange people you can meet on the street. / There is, I think a lack of security on the streets. Very often on the streets, we hear people shooting. There are reports of people being killed in cafés and things like that. So most people, middle-aged people or older people, they are afraid to go out late at night. Before, in earlier times, we would walk at midnight without being afraid of anything happening. But nowadays, it’s not so. Even for young people. Children are being met in the streets and forced to take off their shoes or jackets or something like that. EB: So you haven’t gone out for the past two years. What do you do at home during your free time? Is it constantly worrying? What is it? Well, constantly worrying…Well, watching some TV programmes, talking to my husband. Well try to read. I was a good reader but I have no concentration now, so well whatever you can do staying at home: chatting. / You’ve got friends, you know. You exchange visits. You’ve got friends coming to your home. Before we would go out to restaurants and meet there, but nowadays, we meet at home because really we can’t afford… really we can’t afford going to any restaurants. EB: You also see the pictures of the war in Bosnia. What do you feel when you see these pictures? The pictures we see on television are horrifying. We’re horrified like the rest of people in Europe and the world, seeing them. / Well, I feel very unhappy and probably it makes me very sick really. I think I’m fed up with all these pictures. I feel really bad because of all that. They said it’s not a war in Serbia, but I feel I’m in the middle of something very terrible. And all these pictures make me very unhappy, very angry as I told you before. But I can’t help it. I mean, I can talk and I can quarrel but I can’t help it. EB: Your wife was saying you have lost a lot of friends as a result of what’s happened. In what way? Before this war, we didn’t talk about politics much. But coming with the war and nationalistic passions spreading, all of a sudden there was a division in society. You find that many of your friends hold extreme views on nationalism and political questions in general. So if you don’t agree with them, all of a sudden after some time you can’t speak to them. I had a friend whose a very good friend from childhood, and I told him one day – he was here in my house – that: look here, dear friend. I really can’t talk to you any longer. And so he got up and went. I haven’t seen him for a year now. EB: It must be extremely sad. Yes it is but you really can’t reconcile these two sides of the same story. EB: I was told by someone else yesterday that what happens is that you have a few close friends with whom you can talk to about everything and who you can trust completely, 150%, and those people are what gives life some meaning at this time. Yes, that’s it. If you can’t agree with anybody, you are left alone and it would be very sad. Fortunately you have friends who are looking at things more or less the same way. In this time of real trouble in this country, you have to have people with similar views. Otherwise…views are so diametrically opposed that you all of a sudden find that you have nothing to do with them any longer. It’s so bad. EB: You have two children. Your son is here, and your daughter is living in Malta. Why is your daughter in Malta? My daughter found it rather difficult to live here. She was disgusted with the situation and decided to go abroad. At that time – it was a year ago, it was in January last year – she decided to go to Malta because Yugoslavs didn’t need a visa at that time. They needed a visa to go to France or to Britain or to anywhere, so she wanted to bypass all these difficulties. Now she’s at the university there. EB: And your son? My son, also at the beginning of the war, went abroad. He lived for three months in Switzerland, studying French, and then he applied for a place at the university, the American University in Paris. He was accepted. I had some savings because, as I said, I worked for foreign organisations. I had some foreign currency savings, so I could support him for some time. But the money was gone by the time he was to enter the fourth semester. And he had to return back. I now hope I will be able to arrange for some sort of scholarship or grant to continue his studies somewhere, either in France or in Britain or in the United States. EB: Because he sees no future for himself here. No he doesn’t. EB: No prospects for jobs, is that it? That’s right, yeah. Like many other young people, some of them are graduates, and they can’t find jobs for some years now. They haven’t been able to. As  you probably now, tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of young people have gone abroad. If you go around the town, you will see that there are queues in front of the American, especially Canadian embassy. Very many young people have gone to Canada. EB: What is it like for you as a father to have to see your children go abroad because there’s no future for them here? Well, obviously, I feel very bad because we’re still a sort of patriarchal society. You will want to be at one place, to see our children every day. Even if they go out of the house, if they marry and have their flats, they would be living in Belgrade or somewhere. People usually expect their children to be within easy reach. But with this situation, our son plans to go even to Australia if necessary. / Well, the same thing. I feel very miserable. I long for a time when they grow up, and we live together. I told him if he wants to go, I let him go. But I feel very bad and very miserable really. EB: You were saying too that you feel angry. Yes, I am very angry. EB: Angry with whom? With all this situation, with the government, with the people who made all this mess. Somebody is guilty for all this. Somebody just interrupted my life, my children’s, my husband’s life, our family’s life because we were a very tight family, and that is that. EB: Do you feel powerless too? Yes, very much indeed. Yes. EB: You can do nothing to change the situation? No. No, I don’t think I can. I quit with many friends of mine. I try to speak to some people. I try to speak to my friends, and no results. EB: You mean they continue to support the government. Many of them do. EB: Can you understand that? No, I’m afraid not. No. So I’ll miss my children and miss my friends and that is that. I don’t think I’ll live so long to see any spring to come in this country for a long, long time. EB: How can you continue to live in those conditions, when you see that there is no future, no hope? No, no. Don’t ask me that. I don’t know. Really, I don’t know. I don’t know. I’ll try. I’ll try my best. I think I’m a fighter, but nowadays, I don’t think I’ll be able to fight with all those enemies and things around me, really, really. / There’s no hope of any improvement for a very long time into the 21st century, I should think.

“The Demise of Serbia” was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. Technical production: Floris van Hoorn. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.