Saturday, August 20, 2005

Queuing for a stamp in Serbia

By Matt Prodger
BBC News, Belgrade

When Slobodan Milosevic was toppled by a popular revolution in October 2000, the country badly needed political and economic reform but, as Matt Prodger reports, Serbs are still waiting for the change that was promised.

Bureaucracy moves slowly in Belgrade

When I was a child, I dimly remember receiving as a birthday or a Christmas present something called a John Bull printing kit.

What this gift allowed children to do was create their own rubber stamps, letterheads and personalised symbols which, with the aid of an ink pad, they could use to make official looking correspondence.

I cannot say it was my favourite toy and it ended up at the back of my cupboard soon after.

But recently I was reminded of the John Bull printing kit as I sat in the dusty waiting room of a Belgrade police station, sweating in the August heat.

You see, I need a stamp. Desperately.

If I do not get this stamp, then the prospect of jail, a fine and eventually deportation loom.

I, like everyone in Serbia and Montenegro, need to register with the police.

Proof of residence

And to register with the police I need somewhere to stay. But officially I do not have somewhere to stay unless I have a stamp on my document to show that this is where I stay.

The trouble is that the old guard which ran Serbia in the 1990s is still here

So my visa, my tenancy agreement, my driving licence, bank statements, passport, press pass, identity card, my contract with the BBC are all redundant.

Because I need the stamp. And, like everything you really need here, you have to queue for it.

My colleague recently told me how upset she was about the death of her grandmother last year.

I expressed my sympathies and asked her if they had been close.

"No," she said, "but when she retired she'd get up every morning at five o'clock and queue. She'd queue to pay our bills, queue to get our documents and queue for visas at the embassies. She was a real professional.

"But now she's gone," she said, "and I've got to do it myself. It's a disaster."

'In transition'

Slobodan Milosevic is standing trial for genocide and crimes against humanity

This is a problem familiar to anybody who has ever lived with the crushing bureaucracy of a communist country.

The thing is, Serbia is not communist and has not been for at least 15 years, since the old Yugoslavia disintegrated.

Now it is post-communist or, to give it its proper term, "in transition".

That is a nice phrase - slightly dynamic, suggesting some forward momentum, some progress towards an ultimate goal. The trouble is, it does not apply much to Serbia.

It is nearly five years since Slobodan Milosevic was swept from power by a popular revolution, with a little help from abroad.

Reformists took over, things began to change. And then they stopped changing.

The trouble is that the old guard which ran Serbia in the 1990s is still here. The chairman of the board may be facing war crimes charges in The Hague, but the management is still pretty much the same.

So in recent months a new description of the situation here has emerged: not transition, but slippage.

Red tape

A drift back to the values of the Milosevic era. Nationalism, authoritarianism and corruption.

Serbia's relations with its neighbours - Montenegro, Macedonia and Croatia - have deteriorated.

The party representing ultra-nationalists has become the most popular in the country, and the government relies on the parliamentary support of Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party.

Veterans of the struggle against Mr Milosevic were angered by the announcement that criminal charges had been dropped against the former president's son, who was accused of threatening to cut up a pro-democracy activist with a chainsaw five years ago.

A government minister has admitted advising the alleged victim to change his statement.

And the gangsters who robbed Serbia in the 1990s are still here as well, only now they have swapped their tracksuits for business suits.

Meanwhile, the economic upturn that many Serbs had expected post-Milosevic has not happened. The average monthly wage is about £150, unemployment is about 30% and daily life is still governed by red tape and bureaucracy.

Desperate measures

Back in the police station I can hear the slow tap-tap of one-finger typing as a clerk ever so slowly fills out a report on a rusting typewriter.

A yellowing wanted poster of war crimes suspects hangs on the wall.

And then the John Bull printing kit springs to mind. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

I turn to my colleague and say: "Let's buy a stamp. We'll find a stationery shop, get the stamp made up and all our problems will be solved."

"You can't do that," she said.

"Why not?" I asked.

"Well, you can't just go into a shop and buy a stamp. You need written permission.

"And a stamp."

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