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Black Bread Epitomizes Croatian Poverty as Labor Strikes

March 13, 1993

ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) _ In Croatia, black bread has become both a staple and a symbol for those struggling to get by in this former Yugoslav state’s war-decimated economy.

The dark loaves, produced in quantities controlled by the government and six times cheaper than any other bread, are an issue that has replaced all others in conversation.

Labor unions now are presenting wage demands to the government not in terms of money, but loaves of bread.

On Friday, under the motto ″Bread for Everyone 3/8″ unions declared Croatia’s first general warning strike since World War II. For four hours, the job action shut down much of what remains of Croatian industry, railways, elementary schools, the national electric company, some shops and technical departments of TV.

″People now have to work one hour to buy just half a loaf. We demand that their hour be tantamount to an average price of one bread,″ said Vesna Mirkovic, vice chairwoman of Croatia’s biggest labor union.

Croatians today rarely discuss the U.N. peacekeepers patrolling one-quarter of their territory, or the Bosnian peace talks. Instead, they wonder how to pay their bills and buy some basics for dinner.

All over eastern Europe, white bread traditionally has been a status symbol.

Branka Vecanin, a 30-year-old secretary, said that in Croatia nowadays, black bread has become the symbol of ″being able to survive.″

Every morning, in semidarkness, Natasa Vlacic joins dozens of other impoverished Croatians in a line outside the supermarket for black bread.

On Friday, Mrs. Vlacic got to her bread line at 5:30 a.m. She was 20th in a queue that had swelled by 6 a.m. to 70 people hoping to buy one dark loaf when the supermarket opened half an hour later.

″Two months ago, when the temperatures were 15 below zero (5 degrees Fahrenheit), I was also waiting an hour in line,″ said the 58-year-old bookkeeper, adjusting her kerchief against the early morning cold.

Like the bread, named for the dark, whole-wheat flour used to bake it, Croatia’s economy looks black.

The average monthly wage is now about $60. Unemployment is officially at 17.5 percent, with only an estimated one in four Croatians actually holding a job.

An economy of 4.5 million people shoulders the additional burden of 650,000 refugees from Bosnia. More than 450,000 of these survive on some kind of social assistance.

The Croatian dinar, once a proud symbol of the independence declared in 1991, fell 1,200 percent in value last year. Despite government efforts to control price rises, inflation is estimated at 25 percent a month.

While prices have followed the rate of convertible foreign currencies, salaries have remained stable for months.

Black bread is the only staple not susceptible to the infant market economy, because its price is controlled by the government.

″I gave up everything but bread,″ said one striker Friday, who gave her name only as Ms. Petricanin. ″If I had to give up bread too, where would I go from here?″

But there are not enough loaves for everybody. The government stipulates that between 20 to 40 percent of the daily output of each Croatian bakery must be black bread.

″A loaf of black bread costs 100 Croatian dinars (about 7 cents), while the other sorts cost more than 600.. My monthly salary is about 60,000 Croatian dinars ($43). So, if I buy just one white loaf a day, I would spend a third of my salary,″ Mrs. Vlasic said.

The government, too, is beginning to reckon in terms of black bread.

The Ministry for Labor and Social Welfare proposed a new program for more public canteens and subsidies for the poorest - officially ″socially imperiled″ - families to buy quarter of a black loaf and quarter of a liter of milk a day. (A liter is slightly more than a quart).

For the first time since World War II, the government is considering distributing food coupons to each family.

″The labor union doesn’t want to accept public kitchens and welfare as an alternative to earned salaries,″ said Dragutin Lesar, chairman of the Labor Union.

Most observers expect the economic picture to get worse, however, and believe Friday’s peaceful warning strike could be the prelude to more serious social upheaval.

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