Some Serbs fight hard times with retail therapy

BELGRADE, Mar 21, 2000 -- (Reuters) While most of Serbia struggles under international isolation, those citizens with the means have sought solace by buying imported luxuries, a trade analyst said on Monday.

Radovan Kovacevic, head of the Foreign Trade Institute, a non-government organisation in Belgrade, said luxury goods were flowing fast into the impoverished country.

"The list of imported items in the first two months (of 2000) was dominated by purchases of motor cars worth $68.54 million, or 46.3 percent more than in the same period last year," said Kovacevic.

"The poorer the economy, the greater the imports of luxury items," he told a news conference.

Air strikes by the NATO alliance against Serbia last year devastated an economy already run down by years of mismanagement and sanctions dating from the previous war in neighbouring Bosnia. But flash cars cruise the capital's dingy streets, mocking an international oil embargo against the Balkan state. will turn warmer after a winter of heating and power shortages.

Kovacevic said gas imports, one of the country's most critical, were worth only $744,000, down 96.7 percent from last year's levels. But, citing official statistics, he said imports of crude oil and derivatives were only 1.9 percent below last year's figures despite the embargo.

Kovacevic said the monthly trade gap narrowed to $130 million in February, due mainly to a sharp fall in imports, but he warned the gap could reach $2.5 billion by the end of the year. Yugoslavia ended 1999 with a $1.8 billion trade

Many of these cars belong to the hidden heads of Serbia's shadow economy, people involved in a recent spate of gangland shootings which claimed the life of Serbian warlord Zeljko "Arkan" Raznatovic in January.

Retail therapy is out of reach for most Serbs who are hoping a chilly spring gap.

The analyst warned that Yugoslavia was not importing enough raw materials or industrial plant to put the nominally state-owned economy back on its feet.

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