Serbians struggle through standoff with the WestBy Edward Cody
Wednesday, February 9, 2000
BELGRADE –– As a retired pediatrician largely dependent on his government pension, Sinisa Andjelkovic feels the pinch of economic sanctions imposed on Yugoslavia every time he goes shopping. With tangerines at more than $1 a pound and even potatoes almost as high, Andjelkovic moves through the crowded lanes of Belgrade's Kalenic Market counting his pennies and cursing his luck.
"Mrs. Albright and Mr. Clinton … are doing this to us," Andjelkovic, 73, complained, referring to Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and President Clinton. "I cannot forgive them for this. … There is nothing we can do to get out of the straits we are in. People stronger than we are fighting over our backs."
Andjelkovic's lament, expressed during a shuffle among the stalls of meat, fruit, vegetables and cheese, could speak for most Serbs today. After enduring sanctions for most of the last decade – and after a U.S.-led bombing campaign last spring that for 78 days pounded Serbia's infrastructure – people here seem tired: tired of sanctions, tired of deprivation, tired of making do and, most of all, tired of their reputation as a people to be shunned.
A widely predicted winter collapse of Serbia's battered power and energy networks – which some had counted on to push the republic's 10 million inhabitants to rise up against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic – has not occurred. By ingenuity, discreet purchases and some help from its neighbors, Milosevic's government has kept electricity flowing despite NATO's high-tech strikes against distribution grids during the Kosovo war.
A strong agriculture, supplemented by smuggling, has kept dinner tables full. Russian natural gas has been piped in for heating. And despite U.S. and European Union bans on petroleum sales, so much gasoline has appeared on Serbia's semiofficial free market that prices here – about $2 a gallon--are lower than in neighboring Hungary.
"If you put all this together, you have what is happening now," said a European diplomat in Belgrade, capital of both Serbia and Yugoslavia. "They're going to make it through the winter. … Any strategy of squeezing out Milosevic by economic means has little chance of success." But in the sullen mood of Belgrade, even survival and warm houses have become reasons for discouragement. They mean, people here say, that the standoff between Milosevic and U.S. and European leaders seeking his downfall is likely to continue. And those paying the bill will be the same--people like Andjelkovic who are trying to get by on a fixed pension in the face of market prices inflating at an annual rate near 100 percent even though official prices were frozen last year.
"It can go on for years," said Ivan Drazic, 40, a lawyer in a prominent Belgrade firm. "We still have not come to the bottom line – hunger, no water, things like that. We can still go downhill from here. It is cruel, but true."
Milorad Zibkosac, who peddles homemade address books on the sidewalk on his day off, feels he has gone about as far downhill as he can. His salary at a state-owned paper goods factory is the equivalent of about $65 – and his rent alone is $50. To fill in the gaps for himself and his wife, he makes notebooks and address books at home in the evening and hawks them in the street, each for about the price of a pack of cigarettes.
"I was an excellent student," Zibkosac, 34, said through a mirthless smile, "and you see where it got me."
Economic sanctions imposed on Yugoslavia after the Kosovo war have come to be seen here as another chapter in a long political and economic squeeze against Serbia, the predominant republic in the Yugoslav federation. Viewed from Belgrade, the same hardships have been in place more or less throughout a decade of conflict as Slovenia, Macedonia, Croatia, Bosnia and now Kosovo have spun away from union with Serbia. Montenegro, too, is showing signs it might go its own way soon, ending the current Yugoslav federation and leaving Serbia by itself.
The result has been the devastation of what had been Eastern Europe's most developed middle class and open dissatisfaction with Milosevic's rule, which is widely blamed for both the breakup of the old Yugoslav union and the present hard times. "Greater Serbia is only a little Serbia now, and it could get even littler if our daddy takes us into another war," said a disillusioned waiter in Kragujevac, a town 60 miles south of Belgrade. But even Milosevic's political enemies say they see no sign of a strong momentum for a change in government that his adversaries in Washington and European capitals had hoped for. And the relatively problem-free winter thus far has left most people more interested in coping with everyday difficulties than in heeding opposition calls for massive street protests.
"People are in such a state of apathy," complained Ognjen Pribicevic, political adviser to opposition leader Vuk Draskovic. "There is no enthusiasm."
"The poorer the situation gets, the calmer it is," reasoned Milan Ninkovic, a railway worker who blames Milosevic for the economic troubles but sees little chance of change any time soon.
Because Serbs rely heavily on electricity to supplement government-provided steam heat, a cold snap in the last week of January forced several days of power reductions in Belgrade and outages elsewhere. But the danger of a system-wide collapse seems to have been averted, Labus said.
Government engineers, masters of improvisation after a decade of economic stress, installed new switching equipment – some provided by Switzerland and Romania – and moved parts around the country to restore the much damaged grid and keep it operating. "They are smart guys, and they succeeded in repairing the network," he added.
To make up the difference between needs of about 140 million kilowatt hours a day and the 105 million produced domestically, the Serbian government has arranged electricity purchases from Slovakia, Hungary and Bosnia's Serb Republic in addition to a swap agreement with Greece, he said. Prolonged cold could still strain supplies, he predicted, because the need can rise by up to 10 percent as families turn on electric heaters when gas-powered steam heat is not enough.
Despite U.S. urging to the contrary, Hungary has kept natural gas for municipal steam plants flowing through a pipeline from Russia, sending enough to meet half of Serbia's annual needs of roughly 3 billion square yards, according to Balsa Skadijer, the Yugoslav ambassador in Budapest. Gasoline, oil and diesel have moved into Serbia in liberal quantities from Bulgaria, Romania and the Bosnian Serb Republic, Serbian and diplomatic sources said. Although these states have been pressed to heed U.S. and EU sanctions, Bulgarian Prime Minister Ivan Kostov assured Serbian journalists last week that withholding fuel would be unneighborly, and, he said, Bulgaria is a good neighbor.