The Nando Times - YU hopes millennium bug won't add to its woes

By MISHA SAVIC

BELGRADE (December 28, 1999) - Beset by poverty, ethnic conflicts, territorial disputes and thousands of NATO troops on its soil, Yugoslavia has taken steps to prevent the Y2K bug from adding to the nation's woes.

State-run banks, the railway system, and factories have applied software fixes under government instructions.

Belgrade's not-so-busy airport, which handles mostly domestic flights because of international aviation sanctions, claims to be ready for the rollover - even though European Union officials say they cannot verify that.

"If anything fails, emergency teams of experts will be ready waiting that night to fix whatever needs fixing," said Nikola Markovic, head of the government's Y2K committee.

Markovic said he is proud that the authorities have managed to deal with the Y2K problem at all in the midst of "international isolation, wars and NATO aggression" during the Kosovo fighting.

The country's infrastructure was badly damaged in the NATO bombing launched earlier this year to force government troops to halt their crackdown on pro-independence ethnic Albanians in the southern Kosovo province.

Markovic said serious government Y2K work, begun in 1998 at an estimated cost of $400 million, was subsequently overshadowed by efforts to repair bombed roads and bridges and secure very basic transportation.

One government Y2K priority, though, was work on the power grid, which is now generally functioning after repairs done last summer and fall, officials said.

Authorities have followed U.N. guidelines on how to tackle the Y2K problem, said Markovic. They also issued recommendations for the private sector, though many small- and medium-sized businesses have ignored them, Markovic added.

Many Yugoslavs think it is good news that the country's computerization efforts are comparatively recent, meaning many systems were imported only after the Y2K problem was internationally publicized.

Many computers are thus less susceptible to Y2K problems. But many of those systems were imported by shady, short-lived dealers who assembled them from parts of dubious origin and installed unlicensed programs.

This leaves an army of users without a reliable retailer or provider to consult if something goes wrong.

Yugoslavia's technological backwardness - due in large part to the wars, political turmoil and overall economic decline of the past decade - may also make it less apt to experience serious millennium bug bites.

For example, credit cards are rare and Belgrade is among a few European capitals without automatic teller machines. The monetary system never really recovered from a spectacular crash in 1993, when world-record inflation pushed prices to no less than 11-digit figures.

"If we managed to get out of that mess, I'm sure we can beat the bug," said bank clerk Gordana Antonijevic, 34.

With annual inflation above 50 percent, all larger transactions are done in a hard currency, usually German marks and in cash whenever possible. For years, there have been virtually no savings accounts.

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