Serbs Calculating the Profits of Peace
By Michael Dobbs and Daniel Williams
BELGRADE, June 6 – After a while, even abnormal situations become normal. Over the past 2½ months, Serbs got used to the idea of being at war with the most powerful military machine in history. Some even profited from it. Now that the lopsided conflict appears close to an end, many people here are facing a new challenge – how to adapt to peace.
Take the case of Voja Zanetic, a political commentator and advertising copywriter who led a group that persuaded people here to protest the NATO bombing by wearing symbolic target signs. It was a marketing man's dream. Within a couple of weeks, millions upon millions of black bull's-eye signs had proliferated all over Yugoslavia and beyond – on T-shirts, badges, newspaper front pages.
And then, just about the time that the signs had penetrated into every last village in Serbia, peace broke out. The end came just as Zanetic and his friends were moving into a new set of offices in central Belgrade previously occupied by a fruit preserve company. On the face of it, the future for the newly launched Target Communications Group seems bleak, but Zanetic believes otherwise.
"We are still being targeted," he insisted. "We have no electricity, no water, no bridges, no jobs, no communications. In order to survive, we need contact with the rest of the world."
Zanetic hopes that his organization will become the catalyst for creation here of a civil society along the lines of the Solidarity movement in Poland during the upheavals that led to the collapse of communist rule there. He hopes for support from the West, even though the United States and other NATO governments have said they will not contribute to the economic reconstruction of Serbia – Yugoslavia's dominant republic – as long as Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic remains in power.
Like many other Serbian intellectuals, Zanetic believes the West is too fixated on Milosevic. In the end, he said, Milosevic will be brought down by the same people who depend on him for their economic and social privileges – people who like money and power and to be treated as "citizens of the world." As the country becomes ever more destitute, Milosevic is finding it ever more difficult to satisfy the demands of such people, and what the West needs to do, Zanetic said, is to pump money to independent, non-government groups in Yugoslavia. Anxious to preserve their positions, he said, economic and political leaders will quickly abandon Milosevic and gravitate to where the money is.
Asked if this idea amounts to a pitch for Western financial support for the Target Communications Group, Zanetic smiled broadly.
There is no better exemplar of a politically connected Serbian business tycoon than Bogoljub Karic, head of a commercial empire that controls everything from television stations to tool factories to cellular phone companies. Karic got his start as part of a family singing group that provided entertainment in coffee houses. Now 45, he is reputed to be Serbia's wealthiest man, with a fortune estimated at $150 million or more.
In large measure, Karic owes his remarkable rise to friendly relations with Milosevic and his politically influential wife, Mirjana Markovic. But he also knows that his businesses have little chance of prospering if Serbia's international isolation continues. As a result, he is in a quandary. He desperately needs an opening to the West, but he also must stay on good terms with the ruling couple.
Back in 1997, when the Milosevic government was besieged by hundreds of thousands of demonstrators protesting the rigging of local elections, Karic distanced himself from his patron. He permitted his television stations to criticize Milosevic's handling of the crisis and even said he might run against Milosevic. But Karic jumped ship too soon. Contrary to the expectations of many people here, Milosevic emerged from the crisis stronger than ever by playing his enemies against each other. It took Karic some time to win his way back into Milosevic's good graces.
This time around, Karic has been careful not to make a similar mistake. In an interview Friday, he depicted himself as one of the leaders of the anti-war party and a forthright opponent of extreme nationalist politician Vojislav Seselj, who is the leading advocate of continuing the war. Rather, he defended Milosevic's handling of the crisis and depicted the president as the only political leader capable of controlling Seselj.
As a Kosovo Serb with extensive business interests in the province, Karic faces a particularly delicate challenge. When the war began, many of his ethnic Albanian employees fled to Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro with his assistance. He expects them to come back but is not certain if his Serbian employees will choose to stay.
Everything will depend on NATO, said Karic, and on whether it fulfills its promise to disarm separatist Kosovo Albanian guerrillas to protect the Serbian minority in the province.
For businessmen here over the past 10 years, overcoming the ravages of domestic hyperinflation and international isolation has required a rubbery agility and an unsinkable optimism. Quickness sometimes counts, and veteran banker Borka Vucic is wasting no time.
Where others see only devastation, she sees opportunity for her Belgrade bank – such as in the bridges over the Danube River destroyed by NATO bombs. Vucic thinks that NATO ought to pay for repairs, but if the alliance does not, private enterprise will. She says foreign investors are already vying to finance the rebuilding of six bridges in return for the right to charge tolls.
The war, by her account, turned some of her best clients into high-risk creditors for the simple reason that their factories were destroyed by NATO airstrikes. Where to find new business? Oil imports for one; the government lifted restrictions on fuel imports to increase supplies by any means possible, and Vucic thinks her bank can become a player in the market. "We think the retail oil business will be good," she said.
Vucic said that despite international sanctions on Yugoslavia, her country will have a new economic backer in China, which was enraged by the NATO bombing of its embassy in Belgrade. Credits from Russia are a possibility, she said, as is business with sanction-ridden Iraq under the U.N. oil-for-food deal that permits Baghdad to sell some of its oil in return for staple goods.
As a sign of her optimism, Vucic has tried to limit employee layoffs to older staff members, leaving in place young, eager minds to work in the postwar period. And she worries little that she is on a list of Serbs who are forbidden to travel to Western countries because of their association with Milosevic.
"I will be happy to welcome foreign business people and bankers here," she said. "I know hundreds of them. They will come if there's money to be made. And there is."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company