SARAJEVO, Bosnia (Jan. 27)
An accountant for two decades, 40-year-old Sarajevo native Bosiljka Markovic would like to start her own accounting firm. While many might consider this a pipe dream, given the sorry state of Sarajevo’s war-ravaged economy, Markovic says she knows what she is getting into, thanks to a small-business program recently initiated by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Modeled in large part on a group of small-business centers it launched in 1990 to assist new immigrants to Israel, the JDC has tailored the Sarajevo program to the challenges facing postwar Bosnia.
Funded by several humanitarian organizations — the funds are channeled by La Benevolencija, the Sarajevo Jewish community’s aid organization — the program is made up of a business development school and center, a mentoring program and a loan fund.
According to Amir Ribic, administrative manager of the small business center, the Sarajevo economy “is in a state of transition.”
“First, we are recovering from the war, which devastated the infrastructure,” he says. “Second, we were moving from a socialist to a capitalist way of thinking even before the war, and this trend is continuing.”
Having spent three years just trying to survive the siege that destroyed large sections of their city, Sarajevo’s 500,000 residents are finding it difficult to pick up the pieces, he says.
“During the war, almost half the population was involved in defense, and directly after the cease-fire [brokered in late 1995], 90 percent of the people were jobless,” Ribic says.
Although reconstruction has begun, “at least 60 percent of able-bodied men are functionally unemployed.”
“Some of them work a few hours a week, but it’s not enough to feed their families,” he adds.
Ribic estimates that 80 percent to 90 percent of Sarajevo’s industrial base was destroyed in the war.
“At this point, about 20 percent of the [industrial sector] is functioning, but virtually all the industries are old-fashioned, based on old-fashioned technology.”
Noting that the recovery has been painfully slow, with even the water supply still severely rationed, he adds, “At the moment, there aren’t enough assets to build big factories. Small businesses have a much better chance.”
Shauli Dritter, the JDC’s small-business project director, agrees that large-scale ventures have no place in today’s Sarajevo.
“Just look around you,” he says, pointing to street after street of destroyed buildings. “Recovery will take a long time, and people can’t wait for businesses to rebuild in two or three years.
“These people need help now, and they’re prepared to help themselves.”
The desire of Sarajevans to work hard and rebuild their lives is evident in the classroom.
At the business center, which provides three-week courses to would-be entrepreneurs and to those who lost a business or are struggling to maintain one, the students — who are 18 to 60 years old and from every ethnic group — hang onto to every word uttered by their instructors.
Judging from the tough, hands-on questions they ask their teachers, one quarter of whom are Israeli, the participants appear to have few illusions about the problems facing Sarajevo’s business sector.
During a class on Bosnia’s chaotic tax system, one student who is a distributor of housing materials complains, “When I asked how much tax I’ll have to pay in the coming year, I received three different answers. It’s impossible to work like this.”
A middle-age man with a construction company adds, “The taxes are so ridiculous, it’s impossible to pay them. The government can’t tax those who are unemployed, so they are killing the rest of us.”
Despite their personal and economic difficulties, the participants maintain a dark sense of humor.
When one of the visiting professors details how to conduct a marketing survey, one of the students quips, “That’s one less thing to worry about. There’s no market to survey.”
While many of the course participants will not launch a small business, “that’s part of the learning process,” says Dritter.
“Our courses aim to give information and insight. Learning that you’re not cut out to be a businessman is also a valuable lesson.”
In addition to their course work, and the mentoring that follows, the students are learning another lesson: how to rebuild trust.
Stressing that the business program is non-sectarian, and that Muslims, Serbs, Croats and Jews learn side-by-side, Ribic says, “During the war, you had many enemies. Sometimes, you barely trusted your own parents. Now we must learn to trust each other.”
At the business center, “religion and ethnic origin are things we leave at home,” Ribic says, adding, “Here, at least, we are all Bosnians.”