AIM: start

FRI, 07 DEC 2001 00:38:13 GMT

The Art of Survival

AIM Sarajevo, November 23, 2001

When the first second-hand shop was opened in Sarajevo in late eighties, just a few months later it was put under lock. Despite owners' expectations, it did not attract much interest. Everyone thought that it was beneath their dignity to buy used clothes. Today, second-hand shops are the most frequented shops in Sarajevo, where individual items do not cost over DM 5. The reason for this is not suddenly developed desire to express one's own personality and resist uniform way of dressing with "unique" clothing, but simply the fact that people have no money. People treat super-markets, especially large shopping malls like "Mercator", just like art galleries and theatres, i.e. places they do not go to.

Instead, they purchase basic foodstuffs at market places, where all kinds of products can be bought at one third of the shop prices thanks to the fact that they came through porous B&H borders which is why they are not "burdened" with excessive taxes and customs fees. Thus, the price has become the sole criterion in these purchases, whereas "finesses" such as the quality, origin, properties are of no importance whatsoever.

In August the average income in B&H Federation officially amounted to DM 446, while statistical experts have calculated that for basic foodstuffs a family of four needed DM 429 that same month. But, same as any other average, this one also doesn't mean much in practice. It includes those working in schools and health sector, while salaries in state administration are higher on average - DM 600 per month. On the other hand, workers of that small number of still operating factories can, at best, count on DM 200 to 300 each month, if at all. Far above the average are salaries of employees of banks and similar financial institutions, whose average salaries are around DM 870, whereas those lucky ones working for some of international organisations here get between DM 1,500 to 2,500 a month. However, since the number of foreign organisations is getting smaller by the day, there is less and less work for the local staff.

The struggle for bare survival is becoming harder every day, even for those earning the statistical average. Even if we take the word of statistical experts that DM 429 is enough to feed a four-member family, which is the approximate amount of an average monthly salary, question remains where to find the money for clothes, shoes and, especially, overhead expenses. Monthly heating for a 60-sqm large two-bedroom apartment costs DM 700 on average, which is also the amount of electricity bill. Apart from that, DM 20 should be paid for water, DM 10 for the maintenance of community premises, as well as for a phone bill, if you are careful. In other words, every month at least DM 180 should be set aside for overhead expenses.

If you do not have your own flat or house, you need additional DM 400 per month for renting a two-bedroom apartment. Purchase of new clothes and shoes, especially for children, is an expense one cannot avoid so that parents would have to give additional DM 100 at a minimum for a pair of trousers, tennis shoes, T-shirt and a winter jacket (only the cheapest ones that can be bought at the market place), which means that start of school for two children represents DM 600 worth capital investment, which is equal to one and a half average salaries. Generally speaking, an average four-member family needs for food, clothing and overhead expenses at least DM 800 a month on condition that it is satisfied with living on subsistence level. It is clear that in such a situation buying newspapers, books, seeing a film or enjoying some other sort of "spiritual" fun, including visits to a restaurant (where a meal per person costs DM 15) or coffee shop (DM 1 for a cup of coffee) would not be a luxury, but science fiction. Nevertheless, the greatest mystery remains how pensioners manage to survive. Most of them get between DM 120 and 180, which is, at best, enough to pay overhead costs, while they have to make do for food and other expenses. It is perhaps not surprising that every week one pensioner on average decides to end his misery.

An average family, which according to statistical data doesn't live so badly, exists only in statistical reports. They do not provide an answer to the question how shall 267 thousand unemployed of F B&H and their families survive, nor some thirty thousand workers "on waiting lists", most of whom did not get any wages since the beginning of 1992. Bad news for all citizens is that things will probably get even worse. Analysts of international financial institutions claim that the existing real salaries are too high, i.e. are not based on production and productivity.

Post-privatisation shock will imply further lay-offs and fall of the already low living standards. Remembering the "good old times" is characteristic for all countries in transition, but B&H is specific because today its citizens consider even the past two-three years to be "good old days" when B&H received international assistance worth hundreds of millions of dollars for the reconstruction. Very small new economic elite might improve the statistical average, but cannot resolve the problem of growing social tension and empty stomachs, because the number of beggars in streets is growing faster than the number of new "Audis" and "Mercedeses", whereas the B&H middle class has lost everything in the whirls of war and transition haze.