SERBIA AND TRANSITION: STORIES
FROM THE UNDERWORLD
By Slobodanka Ast
Official statistics say that over 200.000 children in this country
live in extreme poverty
In freezing cold, a regular police patrol found some wretched girls
actually living in a manhole, in our midst, in the Center of Belgrade. The media were
"surprised and shocked", the cameras arrived, the children were taken care of and, as
it usually happens here, only three days after the horrible story from the underworld was
In this town and in this country, child poverty is obvious at every
step, and the moving media story is also a specific illustration of our overall hypocrisy.
Little beggars swarmed around the subways connecting Terazije square and Balkanska st. for
months on end until someone "discovered" that the street was where they lived,
sniffing glue on the sidewalk. Our citizens, as well as authorities on duty apparently
find it normal that seven and eight-year olds should smoke and beg, sleeping on concrete
in the center of the capital, next to the glass-paneled multicolored windows of
"Benetton" and displayed sequined gowns of the indestructible "Verica Rakocevic".
Another window in a row boasted a carpet from a faraway, exotic country, with a price tag
spelling an astronomic price, the number of knots and a note "hand made by children"!
The thing considered unacceptable by the entire world - a shop, a department store or a
designer who admitted to using "child labor" would be ostracized by business as well
as consumer circles - is here presented as a differentia specifica, a special value.
We often repeat that we are "apart from the rest of the world", as
if we took pride in that. Aren't we one of a few countries that failed to react to the
hundreds of thousands of tsunami victims, including at least 50 thousand children? What
sort of a people are we, and what kind of a country we live in? It seems that we have lost
all sense of empathy for the sufferings and hardships of others.
How much do we care for the youngest, especially those from
geographic and social margins?
According to official statistics, over 200 thousand children suffer from
extreme poverty, and another 400 thousand live in families without sufficient funds for
their normal development. Knowing that children in Serbia and Montenegro today number
about two million, we arrive at a gloomy conclusion that almost a third of them lack the
conditions for normal development and happy childhood. Two thirds of child population are
not enrolled in pre-school institutions and kindergartens, and as many as 95 per cent of
those under seven years of age are excluded from educational activities of any kind. A
large percentage of children, almost 12 per cent, do not attend school at all, and most of
them invoke financial problems.
With the assistance of UNICEF a comprehensive study has been elaborated,
a "herbarium of child poverty" in our country. UNICEF experts discussed poverty with
the children themselves. Their testimonies are moving:
"We eat meat only on our patron saint's day", says a girl from
"Even the teacher calls me 'You little refugee'.", says an
embittered girl from Bosnia.
"When we go to see a doctor, we the Roma, have to wait until all
others have been attended to... We are examined by the doctor the last. The doctors and
nurses often shout at us... humiliate us... I'd rather lose all my teeth than go and see a
doctor again!," says an older Romany boy.
Poverty has many faces. Children and their parents (several hundred
households were surveyed) do not describe their poverty only in terms of the money they
lack, they also speak of educational, social, health, geographic and cultural scarcity.
Poverty in its extreme forms was not so widespread and obvious until the
"years of the denouement". The dramatic events that followed, the disintegration of
the SFRY, wars, isolation of the country, economic sanctions, inflow of hundreds of
thousands of refugees and displaced persons and, finally, the 1999 bombing, caused a surge
of poverty, a dramatic drop of the GNP and the standard of living and mass unemployment.
"New pauperization" resulting from the transition and unemployment
added another layer to the already existing poverty.
The poorest among the poor children, are the refugees, Romanies and the
handicapped; precisely the groups that seem to lack the society's understanding the
most: nurseries for Roma children are closing - something even numerous foreign donors
proved insufficiently responsive to - and even the very few ones for handicapped
STRATEGY AND OBLIVION: In the autumn of 2002, the government headed by
Dr. Zoran Djindic initiated a unique project - a Poverty Reduction Strategy in Serbia.
Let us recall that Gordana Matkovic, the minister for social welfare at the time,
successfully completed this task. The project provided not only important economic
indicators, but also a multidimensional overall picture. Next autumn (2003) the Government
adopted the project as part of a wider strategy to join European integration and global
Meanwhile, the political currents in Serbia were changed and the problem
dropped out of focus of the new authorities, a coalition of the former opposition and
Milosevic's government. The gap between those who have and those who have not grew
increasingly wider. The social elite in Serbia now comprises the 300 wealthiest citizens
who amassed their wealth during the "ten bloody years". Members of the former
nomenclature and its networks (business associates, party fellows, family and friends)
during the early 1990s managed to secure for themselves two thirds of elite
entrepreneurial positions, more than in any other post-socialist country. This top of the
social ladder retained the enormous wealth acquired during the times of wars, sanctions
and international isolation, and even continued increasing its capital after the downfall
of Milosevic's regime. The authorities calmly watched the arrogance of the new economic
potentates, their insatiety and obvious violation of all moral as well as legal norms. It
was not before Karic interfered in politics and rattled Kostunica government that the
authorities set out to deal with him "legalistically".
The direct consequence of "society's destruction" in Serbia during
the 1990s is the continuing and accelerated impoverishment of the majority of the
population on the other pole.
THE MAJOR LOSERS: The story of impoverished children should be completed
with that of the youth that paid the largest price at the time of the disastrous social
crises, wars and uncertainties.
The young are the largest losers of the disastrous social developments
of the past decade and a half. The chapter on youth is today essentially reduced to a
clear strategy of emigration. Work and, more generally, life ambitions of the urban as
well as rural youth have to do with going abroad... Is it surprising that over half of the
young, in the cities and the country, covered by the research of the Institute of
Sociology of the Belgrade Faculty of Philosophy contemplate going abroad for a longer
period of time (in practice this usually means for good)? Their life and work aspirations
are to leave Serbia and its gloomy reality behind. This piece of information, more than
any other, indicates that the Serbian society does not seem to be overcoming its
stagnation, revealing not a hint of change that would give the youth some hope that they
might soon be able to earn their living here "like normal people do", and so the
unfortunate reality continues.
Serbia holds the inglorious European record: the highest rate of
unemployment among the youth under the age of 30. This fact should be viewed within a
wider social context: two million unemployed, a million jobseekers. According to the
official data as many as 200 thousand workers receive no pay, 40 thousand are redundant.
In textile industry about 140 thousand workers took less than 50 euro per month throughout
the past year. The entire social product in 2003 amounted to a mere 52 per cent of what
Serbia had in 1990. Meanwhile production has dropped by 3 per cent.
In view of fact that the most recent surge of emigration comprises the
most vital and most educated part of the entire population, it is high time to articulate
a strategy aimed at improving the position of the young, their future work and generally
Any normal government and normal parliament would place on its agenda
the issue of the young - starting from child poverty to the dramatic exodus of the young
- as a matter of priority. But not our political establishment. They took longer to
discuss the rights of a handful of the Hague indictees and their families than the rights
of hundreds of thousands of poor children and dwelt on their privileges more than on the
reform of education and the thousands of young graduates leaving the country.
We are left to live our lives in a dreary landscape of a battle
aftermath. Once normal people came in power, those who want their country to be a decent,
European state, instead of only trying to grab something for themselves or their party, or
take revenge on their political opponents, the young will be given a hope that they could
work and live in this country as normal people do elsewhere in the world.