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Serbs queue in the cold for free shares in nationalised firms

Serbs queued in the cold at post offices across the country yesterday to collect free shares in six of Serbia's state-owned companies, hoping that after years of war and economic hardship their luck will change.

The Serbian government has passed a law to allow people to sign up for a stake in oil, telecoms and pharmaceuticals firms due to be privatised this year.

Many of the people queuing for hours were elderly Serbs. "It was high time I got something for free," said 72-year-old Milena Novakovic, tucking her receipt into her purse as she emerged from a post office in Belgrade. "So much was taken away from us in the past 15 years that we deserve to be given something. Times are hard and everything is expensive. I worked for 35 years and now have to live on 12,000 dinars (£112) pension," she said. "Whatever comes to me after this, will be welcome."

The Economy Minister, Mladjan Dinkic, has estimated that the sell-off of the six companies – the National Oil Industry of Serbia (NIS), Yugoslav Airlines, Electricity Production System, Telecom Serbia, Belgrade Airport and the pharmaceutical firm Galenika – will mean "that four million people will have at least €1,000 in their pockets".

Serbia was battered by more than a decade of war in the 1990s, when the economy collapsed and private savings worth an estimated $4.5bn (£2.2bn) were seized by the regime of former president Slobodan Milosevic. Under the privatisation law, the public gets 15 pe cent of the companies, an additional 15 per cent will go to 150,000 employees, the state will keep 21 per cent, and 49 per cent is intended to be sold to international companies.

But some economists say the government's estimate that the six firms could be sold for more than €12bn euros, is too optimistic, The sale of 51 per cent of the National Oil Industry last week has only heightened those fears; it was sold to Russia's Gazprom for €400m euros instead of the €2bn that had once been mooted. Sceptics also point out that the announcement of the free shares for the public has also come in the middle of the two rounds of the presidential election. The Ultra-nationalist candidate, Tomislav Nikolic, clocked up a five point lead over the pro-Western incumbent Boris Tadic in the 20 January first round.

Political observers say the share offers, viewed by some Serbs as a form of social justice, could help tip the balance in Mr Tadic's favour in this Sunday's run-off vote.