June 25, 2001Share this story by E-mail
About 3 million people in Serbia live below the poverty line. The Serbian Ministry for Social Protection has released the fact that, as of this moment, an income of 60 Deutschmarks (DEM) or about $25 US per family member is the lower limit necessary in order to survive for a month. The average four-member family requires about 240DEM or $110 US in order to satisfy the most basic survival necessities - in the first place food, which takes 90% of any available income. Over and above that money must be found for the payment of utility bills, clothing, shoes, telephone, heating during the winter months, schoolbooks for the children, medical expenses...
It would be easy for the uninformed visitor to assume, on the basis of this data, that (s)he would be met upon arrival in Serbia by Dickensian children dressed in rags holding out their hands for charity; that (s)he would find empty shops, meet the glowing avaricious eyes of people driven to madness by hunger. The first impressions of such a visitor, however, would be that the situation is entirely normal. Shops are filled with local and even imported foodstuffs, people are (on the whole) well dressed and plump - even overweight people are not a rarity. Plenty of young folks are observed sitting in restaurants and cafés, the parking lots of which are full of cars and SUVs of instantly recognizable makes. TV ads sell travel to exotic areas of the world, with the inevitable caveat that "places are limited;" kids attend schools and universities, municipal public transport is running, the farmers are working on their fields....the uninformed visitor would wonder what was up, with everything so relentlessly....normal. A French writer, in fact, said exactly this on the occasion of his recent visit to Belgrade; he congratulated the Serbs on the "laid back" quality of life, because he was expecting, as he put it, "something quite different."
What the French visitor failed to notice, like many others (whether they considered Serbs barbarians or the bombing of Serbia a barbaric act) who are keen to avoid noticing the aftermath of the NATO bombardment, lies far from the eyes of the strollers on main city boulevards. In the apartments and often sadly neglected family homes live people whose days begin before 6 a.m.; the price meter starts ticking immediately. Breakfast is some 200g of bad quality salami (referred to as "old gassy" because it precipitates digestion problems and does not fail to remind the hapless consumer all day of what he had ingested), half a kilogram of bread and some margarine, morning coffee and maybe yogurt or milk for the children - 180 dinars, or roughly $3. Travel to work or school costs $0.30, but we are talking about our four-member family here so multiply that by four, $1.20. One way, so multiply it by two. The state-subsidized meal in the school costs kids $0.20 (times two, of course, for the two kids); daily newspapers, cigarettes. The main meal of the day, consisting of some 200g meat per person, costs $4.00 a day. For the preparation of this meal one required staples - oil, flour, salt... On top of this, at the end of the month the family receives bills which have to be paid by the 15th of the following month. If they are not, they start drawing punitive interest, of 0.02%....a day. The average Serbian family does not bring in this much income per month. In other words, outgoing money is forever greater than the funds coming in.
There is always the "gray" economy. Here, everything is for sale and anything can be bought. High school teachers moonlight by painting houses, and some have graduated to even harder physical labor jobs. Family "in the country," in some village outside of town, is almost essential. With the chronic shortage of fuel for the tractors as well as chemical pesticides, a substantial number of city dwellers return from weekends away or "vacations" in the country with bags full of meat, potatoes, onions, lard, eggs....rewards for hoeing the good earth themselves. Family ties between different generations (it is usually the grandparents who are still in the villages, the young ones having left for the cities during the good times) are becoming stronger, by necessity; what with difficulties in adequate housing, not to mention the useful additions to survival rations, the old-fashioned households consisting of three or maybe sometimes even four generations are making a comeback.
An especially endangered group is the refugees. The worst off are those who are still living in "collectives" - for them, there is no light at the end of the tunnel. For the new government in power, as well as the old Milosevic regime, they are invisible. Luckier refugees have managed to sell property in the ex-Yugoslav republics from which they fled; not a small number have found a burrow in other countries such as Canada, Norway, Australia or Germany.
Those who are higher on the "social ladder" also have both a greater opportunity and a greater incentive to fall under the temptation of corruption. An "envelope" can get you building permits, import/export licenses, even the occasional diploma. Still, the most lucrative activity is smuggling. Cigarettes are the primary merchandise, but until recently one could do a brisk trade with petrol, and the illegal trade in foreign currency is flourishing. There seems to be no business which, practiced outside the taxman's knowledge, can't bring in a profit. Under these circumstances a new breed of the wealthy has mushroomed. They are not hard to recognize in the streets. They drive Grand Cherokees, or other kinds of up-market cars; they wear their hair short, and sport heavy gold chains around their necks. They are frequently accompanied by attractive young women who are becoming known as "sponsorees" - aged between 17 and 24, these are girls who are literally "kept women," but are not considered prostitutes because they do not change partners frequently. The trademark leather jackets of the new "businessmen" conceal the occasional snub-nosed "scorpio" handgun with which otherwise insoluble business problems can sometimes be tackled. Houses in which they live are built and decked out according to American soap opera school of interior design, and boast the inevitable swimming pool, not (until now) the norm in Serbian circumstances. Of course, pedigree dogs are part of this picture, popular breeds include pit bulls, dobermans, mastiffs. The level of education these "new businessmen" can boast is often very low - and the only areas of social interest are sport and what is known as "the new country music," a sort of adulterated folk music sung by pre-pubescent ingénues in micro-minis and thigh-high boots. They are reputed to pay their employees irregularly and unwillingly, but their "girls" often get thousands of deutschmarks on a whim.
Escape into a foreign country is a not-infrequent way out of this situation, taken invariably by the younger and the more educated folk. Faced with the kind of future where unemployment is running at 40% and even those who are lucky enough to have a job hardly ever rate a monthly salary greater than $200, those that can flee into immigration-friendly countries, where they more often than not do not find work in their field - but they would rather wash dishes in some restaurant in Germany or Canada and ensure their existence in this manner than spend their days in a fight for pure survival back home.
In this kind of context, health is the greatest asset one can have, and loss of health can be catastrophic. The free health system from the socialist era has been almost entirely dismantled; even with exorbitant premiums paid by those lucky enough to be employed and covered by an employer-subsidized insurance scheme, going into hospital is impossible without paying over and above these sums for more complex medical procedures. Going into hospital means taking everything with you - bedding included. Needles and surgical thread for the suturing of wounds have to be bought and paid for separately. It is helpful, in the interest of an in-patient's survival, to take in said patient's food yourself if you are a caregiver relative. Many, faced with this situation, simply renounce medicine altogether. Most pharmaceuticals aren't available through insurance, but have to be bought individually in private or state pharmacies - and since they are based on imported raw materials their prices are equivalent to those found in any affluent Western country. This fact, ably aided by the high levels of stress, has facilitated a huge increase in mortality rates, even in children, and diseases thought to have been made extinct (such as tuberculosis) are making a comeback. Recent photographs of specialist hospitals for the mentally ill reveal that patients have been kept in circumstances in which an enlightened farmer would not have kept his cattle.
The winter of 1999 was characterized by an epidemic of flu, and also by a hitherto unheard of situation in the cemeteries. The numbers of the dead had increased to such an extent that the waiting period for funerals in the bigger cities stretched to up to 10 days. A columnist from what was then an opposition newspaper in Belgrade commented at the time that he had seen many queues in the past ten years - queues for coffee, for soap powder, for oil, sugar, bread....but he never expected to see queues form in front of cemeteries. At funerals it was not infrequent to see attendants who had absolutely nothing to do with the person being buried; they came to eat something at the reception afterwards, drink something warm, and never failed to ask what was the shoe size of the dearly departed, of what illness he or she had died, and if the survivors were willing to hand out any leftover medicine or clothes. These "mourners" included retired engineers, teachers, and army officers. Death was often looked at as a better solution than living the kind of life that wasn't really life at all. It was a time when suicides were looked at with understanding.
The most worrying fact is that neither an economic nor a social recovery is anticipated in Serbia in the short-term future. Serbia and its people are left having to face the fact that they exist on the peripheries, both material and spiritual; out on the edges of a world to which they would like to belong but don't have the strength to get there, even as the last car in a very long train. Truth, as always, is encapsulated in a "witticism" where the Englishman is said to believe that "the Balkans" begin on the far shore of the English Channel. For the Frenchman, "the Balkans" begin south of the Alps. When the question "Where are the Balkans?" was asked of the Balkan people themselves, they first started looking around in a perplexed manner and then said, astonished, "The Balkans?... But....but that's us."
Stevan Konstantinović has a master's degree in literature from the University of Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, where he is presently preparing his doctoral thesis. He has published a book of literary analysis, Kaldrma citanja i misljenja ("the pavement of reading and thinking"), and a collection of short stories. He has published numerous essays and pieces of literary criticism in four languages, and has been active in translating literature from Polish and Ukrainian to Serbocroat. He is a member of the Authors' Guild of Vojvodina and the editor of the literary cultural journal Sidina. Until recently a journalist and a teacher, he is currently employed as an advisor for culture, education and science in the provincial administration of Vojvodina.
Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Stevan Konstantinovic 2001. All rights reserved. This article was translated from Serbocroat by Alma Hromic, the author of Letters from the Fire and a frequent contributor to Swans.
Related Internal Links
Articles Published on Swans Regarding the War in Yugoslavia and its Aftermath
This Week's Internal Links
Note From the Translator (on The Balkans That's Us!) - by Alma A. Hromic
The Democratic Dilemma - by Stephen Gowans
Racism - by Aleksandra Priestfield
Let The Old Men Fight - by Deck Deckert
Please Be Patient - by Milo Clark
Please Be Patient II - by Milo Clark
Robot Minds - A Poem by Sandy Lulay
Stevan Konstantinović's Commentaries on Swans
Macedonia The Last Act
The Montenegro Operetta
The Economics of Evil: How Much for Milosevic?