Economy & Trade, Europe, Financial Crisis, Headlines

ECONOMY-BALKANS: The Old Ways May Be Recession-Proof

Vesna Peric Zimonjic

BELGRADE, Dec 30 2008 (IPS) - Two things Serbs never forget to pack when visiting friends and relatives abroad are the kore and the cream. The kore is the traditional hand-made pastry; and the Pavlovic face and body cream has long held its own against more upmarket brands.

The two products have survived the new market forces. And the downturn for other products has brought no fall for them.

"We can find factory-made kore in Toronto, where I live, but that is nothing compared to these," said Gordana Jesic (48), shopping for the real stuff at the open air Kalenic market in downtown Belgrade.

Kore, made from flour, is spread and dried on large tables and then cut into smaller, 40 by 40 cm sheets. These are then baked, and served with cheese, meat or sweets, particularly apple pies or baklava, the popular Turkish sweet.

And Pavlovic Cream is kept in business by people who want to look after their skin – and who does not. The patent for the almond scented cream, that every baby in Serbia grows up with, is owned by the family of late paediatrician Dr Zivorad Pavlovic. He created the nurturing mix soon after World War II while working in an orphanage.

The product was patented only in 1979, and pharmacies all over former Yugoslavia have used the original recipe to make what they call "baby cream" for decades.

Not everything traditional has survived, though. Thousands of small crafts shops have closed down under the advance of modern shopping malls and industrialised imports.

Cobblers, hat makers, tailors, others who made candles and candy, have fallen by the wayside in droves. "People now buy cheap shoes for one season, so why bother repairing them," Vera Pavkovic, who runs a shoe repairs shop in downtown Belgrade told IPS. "And the young only wear sneakers. But people who know how to take care of their good old shoes keep us afloat."

"Things are getting harder for the crafts," analyst Misa Brkic told IPS. "The state is treating crafts as small business, and raises taxes by 15 percent or more a year. From 2003 taxes have gone up about 100 percent."

Little is done to encourage people to remain in such traditional line of work, other than holding some fairs, or on special occasions in the summer. "It makes it harder for those people to keep afloat and expand," says Brkic.

The last shop left in Belgrade selling hand-made bonbon (toffees) and rahat lokoum (a Turkish sweet) is surviving, not expanding.

"This is hard work, everything is done by hand, on the giant marble table, where mixtures can cool slowly and cutting can be done quickly, at the right time," says Branislav Bosiljcic. He and his brother Zivorad inherited the shop, founded in 1936, from their father. At the time, Belgrade had 120 similar shops.

"Industry has taken its toll," Zivorad says. "But still, there are people who like to take their bonbon or rahat lokoum that they know was made early in the morning the same day." The Bosiljcics say they have regular customers who take their produce abroad, mostly Serb émigrés.

Balkanska street in downtown Belgrade has also managed to resist modern times. This is where to find hand-made hats, tailored suits, and hand-made brushes and candles.

The street has a twin soul in Bascarsija in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo. The crafts market here was set up when the Turks came in the 15th century. Particular crafts got their own street. Those street names remain – Saraci (leather), Kujundziluk (metals work), Cilimarska (carpet makers) among others. These streets draw in tourists, bringing new life to an economy rising from the debris of the 1992-95 war.

The region is seeing a patchy revival of small business run on traditional skills.

According to the Serbian Crafts Chamber, there are some 185,000 registered crafts and small businesses in a nation of 7.5 million. Of them, 82,000 are of traditional crafts, 63,000 are small corner shops, and 17,500 are cafes and restaurants. Between them they employ more than 460,000 people.

Traditional crafts are dying out, and there is no economic strategy for them. But those in small business of their own believe they provide the chance of survival in hard times of transition and the global crisis. And more people are striking out on their own, in the old ways.

"Crafts are the fastest expanding sector in Serbia when small and medium business is concerned," chairman of the Union of Employers of Serbia Stevan Avramovic wrote in the weekly Business Magazine.

"In the past five years, this segment has absorbed some 200,000 people who were laid off by state-owned firms, and some 45,000 first job seekers from the job market. If all the registered crafts and small businesses employ just one person in the next three years, the number of unemployed will drop by a quarter." (END/IPS/EU/IF/IP/FM/UE/VZ/SS/08)

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