Read, Write, Run, Roam

On shopping and socialism: Serbia’s not-so-distant history

Photo from

As I walk past chic stores in Dorcol, Vracar, or the shopping malls in Novi Belgrade, it’s easy for me, a foreigner, to overlook how rapidly Serbia has transitioned from socialism to capitalism. Josef Broz Tito died 31 years ago; only 20 years ago, Slovenia and Croatia declared independence, starting the fracturing of the former Yugoslavia. This may be a lifetime ago to young Serbians, but it’s a massive change for much of the country.

I was reminded of this recently, when I read that a Serbian municipal court is working to distribute Tito’s assets to his family–thirty years after his death. The delay stems from a complicated question: if he was the leader of a socialist country, how many items in his state-owned homes belonged to him personally? In 1984, Tito’s widow tried to claim over 1,000 items, including jewelry, books, and a horse-drawn golden chariot.

The man, without the chariot

(Which begs the question, what is she going to do with a golden, horse-drawn chariot? Sell it? Display it? Give her grandkids the coolest plaything in the world? But I digress.)

Questions about property ownership are stark reminders of Serbia’s recent socialist history. When buying a house here, property titles can be unavailable or murky. If prior owners fled from war, were evicted, killed, or simply moved away for several generations, there’s a fugue of uncertainty over the purchase. This doesn’t include the somewhat common issue of buying a house built without permits.

Historial buildings are hard to maintain

Serbia is still selling national assets, like its telephone company, copper mines, and JAT airline, but disagreements over price have stalled sales. Though apartments have been “denationalized,” questions about ownership of state-confiscated apartments and  maintenance remain. I’m told it can be difficult to convince apartment owners to collectively pay for maintenance of common areas or upkeep of historic facades.

This isn’t an, “oh, those crazy Balkans” post, but rather a “man, things have changed here” commentary. And as is usually the case with rapid change, there are growing pains. But as Serbia moves toward an international capitalist economy, I’ll do my best to support it. Especially since the shops on Knez Mihailova are awfully tempting.

If you read this and are still interested in Balkan property rights interest you, congratulations-you’re as nerdy as I am. Check out this UN Report for more information.


One response

  1. BD

    Can’t wait to help you “support the economy” during my visit this summer! 🙂

    April 8, 2011 at 6:58 pm

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