Serbs look to rationing to beat economic crisis: UN sanctions are putting pressure on Belgrade to end the war in Bosnia

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IN A sign that Serbia's war effort is placing the economy under increasingly severe strain, authorities in Belgrade have begun to print ration books and coupons, according to a Serbian newspaper, Privredni Pregled.

It said flour, sugar and cooking oil would be the first products to be rationed, but did not predict when the measure would come into effect. The newspaper said that a drought last year had reduced crop harvests and quoted agricultural experts as saying that the survival of the population would depend on the outcome of this spring's sowing.

Serbia's economy is already in disarray as a result of almost two years of warfare, international sanctions and the cost of subsidising the Serbian client states in Croatia and Bosnia.

Monthly inflation, 211.8 per cent in February, is expected to soar to 400 per cent this month. About 700,000 of the country's 9 million people are unemployed.

Serbian trade unions held a one-day strike in Belgrade yesterday in protest at what, for most workers, has been a catastrophic fall in living standards since the Yugoslav wars broke out in June 1991. The unions estimated that the average Serbian salary had fallen from the equivalent of dollars 350 (pounds 233) in late 1991 to dollars 18 last January.

Other signs of unrest appeared last week when leaders of the Democratic Movement of Serbia (Depos), a coalition of opposition political parties, urged the formation of a united front against the Socialist Party of President Slobodan Milosevic. 'Serbia increasingly resembles a prison managed by politicians with the assistance of criminals,' Depos said in a statement.

Since the opposition parties are small and took a hammering in last December's elections, it is likely the authorities are more disturbed by the evidence of economic collapse. Serbian specialists said that this year's harvests could be blighted because farmers had too few fertilisers, sprays, and spare parts for machinery. The Agriculture Ministry of the rump Yugoslav state, which combines Serbia and Montenegro, said that the failure to fertilise the soil adequately this spring could lower the wheat harvest by one third.

The problems in agriculture do not bode well for the authorities' efforts to sustain the self-proclaimed Serbian states in Croatia and Bosnia. The Republic of Serbian Krajina, carved out of Croatia in 1991, and the Republic of Srpska, its sister-state in Bosnia, both depend heavily on food and other forms of support from Serbia.

Normal economic life has all but broken down in these two regions, not least because of the disruptions caused by the expulsion and flight of hundreds of thousands of non-Serbs. To shore up their positions, Serbian political leaders in the republics of Krajina and Srpska have been pressing the Belgrade authorities to proclaim a monetary union between Serbia and the client states.

But Mr Milosevic has resisted their entreaties, partly because it would increase the burdens on Serbia and partly because the world would see it as an unacceptable step towards the merger of all Serbian-controlled lands in what was Yugoslavia.

(Photograph omitted)