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BALKANS: Serbs Turn From the State Towards Themselves

Vesna Peric Zimonjic

BELGRADE, Oct 19 2011 (IPS) - Dismayed by the lack of beer and chips at a football game three years ago, Dragan Stancic and Uros Petrovic, two young Belgradians, hatched a plan to take matters into their own hands.

A few weeks later, armed with 4,000 euros worth of start-up credit from the Serbian government’s self- employment programme, the unique “Errand Boys” delivery service was born, the first of its kind in a city where the only deliveries had hitherto come from fast food restaurants.

From a humble venture involving just two second-hand cars and two owner-employees, the service has grown to encompass over 40 employees, a call centre and 20 delivery cars, bikes and motorcycles that zip through the streets of Belgrade.

“Errand Boys” delivers everything from newly purchased washing machines to clothes, from groceries to medicines for the elderly. Delivery charges start at a reasonable rate and are proportionate to the value or size of the goods being transported.

Serbia barely survived the global economic crisis in 2008 and has not yet fully recovered. The country has an eligible workforce of 2.9 million people, of which 743,000 are unemployed.

At a time of such crippling economic uncertainty, Stancic and Petrovic represent just two of the 1,500 people in Belgrade who created their own employment schemes last year.

According to data from the National Employment Service these 1,500 entrepreneurs have provided employment opportunities to a further 5,000 people.

“Self-employment is one of the most reliable roads to economic sustainability,” economic analyst Misa Brkic told IPS.

“People here were used to the state providing them with jobs, but times have changed; our transition into a market economy over the past years has resulted in growing unemployment.

“But people who started thinking for themselves found ways to overcome this,” he added.

Fifty-four year old Vladan Milovic from the central Serbian town of Kragujevac is one such success story.

After labouring for 25 years in a car factory, he was made redundant in 2007. Rather than accepting his ‘redundancy’, Milovic simply sculpted another life for himself, one in which his livelihood was in his own hands.

“I put all my savings into angling equipment such as fishing lures, soft plastic baits and artificial flies,” he told IPS.

Milovic has turned one of the bedrooms in his apartment into a small factory stocked with equipment that he and his wife procured by travelling to neighbouring Croatia and Montenegro.

“I have an order for 10,000 floats now and I’m considering renting extra space, as our home has been turned upside-down (by the business),” he added.

After four years of self-employment, Milovic believes he is successful.

“Four years ago it looked as though everything had ended for us, but now we cover all our expenses and pay for our son’s studies in (the central Serbian town) Cacak,” he said.

Economist Marko Zdravkovic told IPS, “There is plenty of space for self-employment as well as a growing market demand for pharmacists, IT technicians, construction engineers etc.

“It would be easier for these professionals to start up their own businesses than to work in firms for fixed salaries,” he added.

Sasa Drndarevic, a mechanical engineer, gave up his fixed salary in Belgrade in order to start a private business in his native town of Uzice, 186 kilometres south of the capital.

Four years ago Drndarevic began restoring his grandparents’ abandoned estate in the tiny village of Zlakusi. The two old houses, built in 1907 and 1925, have now become part of an ‘ethno village’ – a tourist attraction that has flourished in Serbia over the past several years.

Apart from hosting city dwellers in the summertime, ethno villages offer a glimpse into Serbian life that existed decades, or even centuries, ago. These ‘villages’ are particularly popular among expatriates living in Belgrade, providing a welcome escape from the busy metropolis.

“Some 6,000 people have visited our ethno village in the past three years,” Drndarevic said.

“Apart from our people (Serbs), who are (charmed) by the antique household items, traditional architecture and old garden styles, we have also had visitors from Australia, Mexico and other far away nations.”

Drndarevic and his wife currently employ about 20 people from the village to provide services to the business venture.

“As for income, I can neither brag nor complain; but this is certainly better than waiting for one’s check each month and never having time for anything else in the smog-filled city,” he concluded.

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