What I am about to write down over here is part of my history – personal as well as of my friends, neighbours and people I never met but heard about. A history of a country where I lived before I moved to Canada. A part of it anyway. I mentioned to Mik Furie on his blog that I was having the idea to write about monetary hyperinflation in Serbia (actually, Yugoslavia or what was left of it after its constituting republics decided to go their own way) and how I and my family dealt with it. But before, even a thought of going through all of it again, even just remembering, would bring some bad feeling, like a big rock pressing on my chest; it felt unthinkable and even the memories were still there, I was pushing them back, somewhere in the darkest parts of my brain, to jail them forever in chains of oblivion. But now, after almost two decades, I can face them again. Both time and physical distance made it possible. Also, my life is completely different and I don’t have that bad feeling now. Even though, just a thought of living through something like that again, terrifies me.
Just a piece of history as an introduction: At the end of 80s, with opening of Berlin wall and fall of Soviet Union, Yugoslavia was slowly seething inside. We all felt a big change is about to come, we just didn’t know how bit it is going to be. And how severely it is going to affect all of us. Some of the republics that were parts of ex-Yu wanted to separate, were generously encouraged to do so by governments of USA, Germany, Italy and Great Britain. First politically and financially, then with weapons and armament. Political rulers in Serbia and Montenegro were having different idea and didn’t want country to fall and opposed that. Wars started, first in Slovenia and Croatia, then in Bosnia. In return, UN (under the pressure of previously mentioned countries) imposed economic sanctions against Serbia and Montenegro (Federal Republic of Yugoslavia back then).
To say the truth, I didn’t know where to start from, there are so many possible beginnings, so many angles to look at. I don’t want to go into politics, this is not what this post is all about. So I will start with the most obvious thing about monetary hyperinflation.
First thing you notice is that a loaf of bread you’ve bought in a shop few days ago doesn’t cost the same as it was; or a coffee you’ve payed in your favorite café, having a good time with your girlfriend or friends; or bus ticket – actually, everything you were spending your money for didn’t cost the same. It is more expensive. More, not in terms of few coins, but in tens of percents. At the beginning – and it was spring of 1992. that I am talking about – nothing seemed more different than it was before. During 80s we were experiencing few downfalls so having prices suddenly changed, didn’t surprise us. We were sort of used to it and we knew that after few months of instability, we would be back on track. This time, actually, prices were growing rapidly and in shorter time periods, but we were all having hope that everything will be all right. Except, that it didn’t. The end of a year brought some new paper banknotes with more zeroes on them. Shops were a bit emptier than they used to be. In a meantime, I’ve lost a job, then lost another one and then another one. And each of them was payed less and my wallet was more often empty. I can’t really remember what I did during winter, I think it was when I was selling newspapers on the street. I was working – if you can call that a work – two days per week, sometimes three and money that I got would last me for the rest of the week – and then I would work again. But even with so little money, I was earning more than my both parents would earn for a whole month. The trick was that I would go and change my worthless dinars for some more solid currency and back then it was German mark. Banks closed selling of foreign currencies about a year ago so the only way to do that was to buy them in black market. But back then it was easy: dealers were everywhere. First only in few spots in a city, then literally everywhere: on bust stops, in front of shops and supermarkets, parks, schools, you name it. So, I would change my day worth of earning and that would last me longer than my parents’ salary. Luckily, they both got it immediately and my father was doing the same as I did: change it to Deutsche Mark and spend it carefully. But my grandparents were confused. Their pension money would come once a month, usually in the morning and by the evening, they couldn’t buy anything for it. Not even a box of matches. So I told them to go to shop at once and buy whatever they can – a quarter of loaf of bread, or a candle, or… anything. Yugoslav currency was so weak by the end of 1993. that in period of October 1st 1993 until the end of January 1994 prices were doubling every 16 hours (this is inflation of 5 x 10¹⁵ % per month)!!! Some money that my grandparents were having in bank (for rainy days my grandma said) disappeared into thin air long time ago and people who were having savings in foreign currency were unable to reach it because government blocked all of it – for attempting to maintain country’s stability. That was all BS of course, but on a bottom line, if you had any money in bank it was as if you didn’t have anything. We survived that year (and next, 1994) with some money I earned on a job I’ve found at the beginning of 1993 (I was not legally employed but who cared: I was bringing home some money), with money my brother earned on black market (fuel, I will tell more about it in next chapter) and on money my aunt got when her late husband’s family sold some house in a village and she got part of it (which she selflessly shared with all of us). I even managed to go to Greece that summer with my girlfriend at the time and some of our friends (earned a nice bonus on some sale but it was a splurge that costed me dearly two years later). But, most of all it was careful planning of expenditures (and a fact that my grandparents were having a small vineyard and garden in a village so we could have some fruits and vegetables grown on our own). Money was coming and going with the same speed and there was no chance to save much but somehow it all worked. And just a note: we are talking of huge amounts of German Marks that I earned. Say, about 50 when it was a good month 😛 . Between 20 and 30 when it was average (when Euro came to scene it was exchanged at rate of 1 eur for 2DEM). This is how cheap life was in Serbia back then.
500 billion dinars – I bet you are counting zeroes now 😀
I’ve already mentioned that, gradually, shops were getting emptier month after month, as the crisis increased. But the biggest shock for me came at the end of July of 1993 when I returned from summer vacation in Greece. In June, everything seemed “as usual” but in only a month shops – government owned, that is – were literally empty. I remember entering into one near the building where I lived to find only one employee sitting there, shelves empty except for one where someone spread packs of paper napkins so it won’t look like there is nothing to sell. I asked if there is any bread left (I just came home and fridge was empty, my grandparents in the village for the rest of the summer) and she told me that it was sold in the morning, but there were just few loafs anyway. But, she said, you can go to a nearby, privately owned shop, they have everything. So I went there and they really had everything. I felt like in Greece again. Then I checked the prices and all of them were in German marks. Instead of wasting a lot of time in changing prices daily (and later, more than once a day), shop owners did the obvious – they were getting more than 70% of their stock on the black market anyway so why bothering. And by that time we all knew how to trade in foreign currency and some quick mathematics will give you the price in dinars, if you really needed to know. And goods were brought to Serbia mostly from neighbouring Hungary and Bulgaria and then sold in one of many open markets all over the country (open market is like a flee market but things you could buy there were brand new). I knew a man who was “importing” welding electrodes from Hungary and he was doing so good that he made a house, bought a good car and made himself a small boat, not to mention that he lived for about 6 years from that business. While it was impossible to go and buy a gas on a gas stations, you could buy it anywhere on the street. On major streets in cities and on major highways there were people standing, usually with a plastic bottle full of yellow or blueish liquid (Romanian or Hungarian, you could choose) and a price written on a piece of cardboard. My brother and one of my friends, being desperate and without money, decided to try their luck with gas. They put one big barrel and few cans in my friend’s small Renault R4 (google it and you will see how small that car is) and went to a village on Serbia-Romanian border where they knew smugglers will come to sell. On a way back, a police officer stopped them and asked how much did they have in a car. He didn’t ask them a money, that was a small amount (probably about 300 litres, btw) but told them to extinguish their cigarettes :doh: and get the hell out of there. Back home they’ve found themselves a corner and in few days sold all of it. They were doing that for about 3 months as far as I remember and then someone came to ask them a money “for protection” so they gave up. Refusing to pay could end up with serious repercussions from local criminals.
Winter of 1993. was cold and wet. I got some nasty cough that didn’t want to go away and farmacies were kind of too expensive. So one day my aunt and I decided to take of one so many buses that were heading to Szeged, Hungarian bordering city, to buy some food and medicines. I remember we spent about 200 DEM for 3 bags of dried meat, salami, cheese, canned food, some painkillers and antibiotics. The price for crossing the border was about 5DEM per person and it went to border police, probably. That day I counted about 150 buses on a parking lot in center of Szeged. If every bus was having about 80 passengers and every one of them spent only a 100 DEM than we can say that it was about 1.2 million DEM worth of goods bought in that day alone. In reality, you can probably double that. And that kind of trade lasted for more than one year, although not with the same intensity, I was there in a peak of the business.
photo taken from http://www.nadlanu.com
I have two more chapters to write, it will be here in a couple of days, I hope. I guessed it would be too much to read it all at once 😀