Milosevic hangs on with monopolyFebruary 6, 2000
BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) -- The tiny window slides open, and a cook in white cap and smock stoops to hand out two loaves of bread.
Bosiljka Krivokapic is at the window the instant the soup kitchen opens, making certain she receives her ration of white bread and brown beans before it all vanishes. Yet she willingly gives up her place to offer an opinion on Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.
"He's not dying of hunger like me," she says.
With a sudden thump, the matron throws open the kitchen door, wags her finger and screams that visitors may ask about the bread and beans "but not about President Milosevic!"
Her anxiety is not surprising in Serbia, where government apparatchiks consider even a 66-year-old refugee who lives in a laundry room a potential instigator of disorder.
"We are a corrupted society," says Slavoljub Djukic, a former journalist and author of "Him, Her and Us," a biography of Milosevic and his influential wife, Mirjana Markovic. "A number of people live by hanging on to the government and the regime."
Despite the increasing destitution of his countrymen and popularity ratings that are reportedly plunging, Milosevic manages to hang on -- surviving lost wars, mass marches, NATO bombardment and misery worsened by Western economic sanctions.
He does that in part by creating his own monopoly. He puts party loyalists at every level of government and business and cross-fertilizes government ministries with chief executive officers.
The head of the national oil company is also chairman of the Serb parliament. The prime minister is also president of an export-import company. The head of state-run television is on the board of Milosevic's ruling Socialist Party.
"Politics is the most lucrative business in Yugoslavia," Djukic says.
Critics say Milosevic also skims off the top of Serbia's vibrant black market. Independent economists estimate that oil smuggling and other illegal activities make up a third of Serbia's gross domestic product. Top police and customs officials responsible for combating illegal activities all answer to Milosevic.
"He controls the main players," says Miroljub Labus, an economist with G-17 Plus, a group of intellectuals that seeks to influence Serbia's policies. "That's enough."
That control is slowly strangling Serbia's people. For food, they now spend an estimated 45 percent of their average monthly income of $45, according to a survey in the independent weekly Vreme.
Sixty-four percent of the 10 million population lives below the poverty line, now the equivalent of $30 a month. Up to half of all Serb workers have no work. Soup kitchens, once unknown because of the region's agricultural plenty and the socialist safety net, turn away people by the thousands. Meantime, 200,000 Serbs consume 20 percent of the gross domestic product.
Hospitals that once performed open heart surgery now lack surgical thread and penicillin. The shortage of medicine is believed to have contributed to a 40 percent increase in December's mortality rate over the same month in 1998.
Even in death, people wait in line. A recent flu epidemic so overloaded Belgrade's cemetery that corpses waited seven days for burial.
In Nis, Serbia's third largest city, the wares in the central market show how destitute this once vibrant economy has become. Old men sell threadbare coats, housewives beg shoppers to consider knitted baby bootees, and young and old sell slightly worn shoes.
A former Army captain makes his living buying and selling personal keepsakes in the crisp freeze of the Serbian winter. Although once a member of this society's elite, his pension of about $62 barely gets him through the month.
He hardly pauses when asked whom he blames.
"I am master in my own house, therefore he who runs the state is responsible for conditions in the country," he says. The captain declines to give his name for fear of punishment.
Outside Nis, in the dining room of an old campground turned into the Sicevo refugee camp, a dozen Serb children from Kosovo warm themselves around a battered white steel stove.
While the Milosevic-controlled TV news blares fresh accusations that NATO aggression is to blame for Serbia's woes, their parents fearlessly step forward to offer assessments of what has happened in the months since the bombs fell.
"Better to die in Kosovo than come here," says Jovanka Pejovic, 65, her breath forming white mist in the dining hall. "Better that we had died in Kosovo."
More refugees crowd around, each butting into the tale of the last to describe the misery in a snowbound camp with a single bathroom, no hot water and no help beyond the Red Cross and the U.N. refugee agency.
Again, an anxious cook races out to provide visitors with another viewpoint. She has photographs in hand, showing a children's birthday party with a big cake and smartly dressed adults watching the little ones blow out candles.
Can you imagine, the cook asks, "all the good things we do for people here?"
The weak, divided opposition cannot seem to capitalize on the swelling discontent. Many ordinary people lost faith in 1997 when the opposition failed to transform months of street protests into full-fledged revolt. Then hopes that the Western alliance would save them were snuffed out by NATO's bombs.
"It's a dead end," says Djukic, the writer. "People don't trust the regime, the opposition or the West."
Opposition leader Nenad Canak guesses Milosevic, who is 58, can keep privatizing major industries and skimming off the black market for as long as 10 more years, at which point he will have run out of things to sell. Only then, Canak predicts, will he have to answer for his deeds.
"Every revolution," Canak says, "starts in a queue for bread."