When 22,000 people don’t or can’t find work in a city of 120,000, as is the case in Novi Pazar, it is redundant to say that unemployment is a problem. But as for the validity of the exact unemployment number, the figure of 20,000 is certainly not 100 percent correct, as this is the “official” count, I was told at the Nacionalnoj Zluźbi za Zapošljavanja (National Services for Employment).
By “official” I was to understand that many people find work and are being paid “under the table” – these workers make their living in the “grey economy”. Grey economy means trading illegally with goods that are not illegal. Also, the population of Novi Pazar varies as people find temporary work in the West or in seasonal places close by, for instance on Montenegro’s coast. Remittances too are a substantial part of revenues that flow into the region. Avenues exist to earn money. Yet, after a while I started to be curious about the ever-packed restaurants and cafes that line Novi Pazar’s downtown pedestrian walkway. Why, I wondered, is everybody I speak to lamenting the shortage of money and possibility of work while the markets and cafés are crowded? Not to mention the luxury cars that drive up and down Novi Pazar’s streets… Šverc (smuggling) is the answer, I was told bluntly one afternoon by a friend one muggy afternoon.
Doing business on the grey market is common here in Novi Pazar, though, the situation is not as bad as it is in Raška, a town north of Novi Pazar, I was told. “Nobody works in Raška”, my friend explained. “There are no real jobs there, only a couple of restaurants and stores where people launder their money they earned from Šverc. This is how some of these people sit all day in the restaurants or drive their nice cars – they work at night, you know? They make their money when people like you and me go to sleep”, she explained. Raška, one should know, is predominantly Serbian while Novi Pazar’s population is mostly Bosniak. Perhaps, I thought initially, there are also some stereotypes at work here? But I no longer think this is true. First, the girl who told me about the grey market is herself a Serb. I also changed my mind after another bus ride from Belgrade to Novi Pazar.
We had settled into our seats, stowed away our luggage and awaited the six-hour voyage ahead of us. We had driven the route before and now knew more or less what to expect, how long it would take us, how much the ticket would cost, and where the drivers’ preferred break stops were. No surprises – until Čačak, that is. After we had left the bus station, a burly man with a plastic bag in his hand ran after the bus and motioned the driver to stop. The man wore a blue track suit, a grey t-shirt and house shoes. As he got on the bus, he brought with him the distinct odor of not having showered for days. He sat next to us and behind the bus driver and immediately apologized for smelling bad.
“Sorry I stink guys”, he said, “but I come directly from the prison, they don’t even let you take a shower there. They locked me up, čoveče (man)! Can you believe it!?” In all, there were about five other people on the bus, a couple of elderly men, a young woman, an even younger man and an elderly lady. The man who had come from the prison did not care how many people were on the bus, or who we were. He loudly voiced his frustration about having been locked up. After apologizing he explained that somebody had ratted him out, that was the only explanation for the sorrow situation he found himself in. “I know the man who sold me out to the cops”, he said. “Do you remember”, he asked the bus driver, “how easy it was during the war? There was no red tape, and we stuck together! Nobody would rat you out just to save their own skin. Now, they would sell their grandma’s in order to save themselves! And the worst is that I am dealing in legal goods, unlike the bastard who sold me to the police – I only smuggle cigarettes, coffee and other legal goods, not guns and drugs like that stoka (literally translatable as livestock or beast, a derogative meaning when describing a person as a stoka)!”
After venting for a while, the man borrowed the bus driver’s phone. “I need to make a phone call”, the man said. He was obviously agitated when he spoke to the person on the other end of the line. “Why are you calling a lawyer?!” He asked over and over. “I did not kill anybody! Čoveče božiji”. He paused, and after a short silence said: “I am going to see that guy right away as soon as I get back to Raška! That guy owes me some answers!” He repeated the last sentence after he hung up the bus driver’s mobile phone and then sunk into silence. He did not get back on the bus after our last break was over. “Where is the typ (guy)”? the bus driver asked us. “He hitched a ride on a guy’s truck”, I answered.
Several episodes are interesting to mention here. First, the burly man did not care who was on the bus and the people in return found nothing strange in this episode either. All they perhaps wondered about was what would happen to the guy who allegedly sold out the burly man. In other words, Šverc is not an abnormal affair – the people of Novi Pazar call it a javna tajna (public secret). There is an obvious difference about what is being smuggled. People who deal with guns and drugs or other illegal substances are partaking in the black economy while the grey economy includes goods such as coffee, cigarettes and perhaps counterfeit goods. The burly man was complaining that people used to cooperate during the war, while now everybody looks out for him or herself. Is this perhaps a sign that post-socialist structural changes even penetrated the grey and black economy? And more importantly, where is the police’s role in all this? I will try to look at this question closer in my next blogs.