Sunday, January 04, 2004

Bread Lines Again

Whenever someone in Croatia starts lamenting for the good old days of Communism and Yugoslavia, those who aren't that enthusiastic about those times quickly counter by mentioning phrases like "petrol rationing" and "bread lines". When those things appeared in Yugoslavia in early 1980s, although never as annoying and long-lasting as in USSR and other countries of Eastern Bloc, they quickly began telling to people that something was definitely wrong with Tito's state and their shock value turned many loyal citizens into closet anti-Communists.

Now, fourteen years after the official end of Communism, bread lines are again appearing in Croatia. New legislation banning grocery stores from being open on Sundays is in effect. First consequences range between major inconvenience and utter disaster.

New law was passed by old Sabor after months of lobbying by alliance composed of Catholic Church, few unions and Ivica Todorić (Ivica Todoric), owner of national grocery store chain. They claimed that the workers in grocery stores were unjustly exploited and forced to work on Sundays, thus being denied "their Christian day of rest". Račan's (Racan's) government, few months before elections, caved to the pressure, hoping that Church would at least pretend to be neutral during the campaign (which it did not, preferring Sanader's HDZ, of course).

There are few loopholes in legislation, though. Grocery stores are allowed to work on Sunday, but under strict conditions – only one store can serve 5000 inhabitants, it can be open only between 8 and 13 and its space mustn't exceed 200 square metres. Local authorities are left with the task of deciding what stores would be open and when.

Since there are too many grocery and convenience stores that are below 200 square metres limits, major towns in Croatia have established system of rotation. Schedule of stores being open is published in daily newspapers and here in Split each individual store would be, on average, open once a month or even less frequently.

Since I live in relatively densely populated urban environment, this isn't particularly inconvenient to me, since grocery stores in my neighbourhood aren't far. But in suburbs and semi-rural areas there are people who have to walk 6 kilometres to the nearest store. If those people are old, or if the weather is bad, many would decide to spend Sunday without fresh bread. And when and if they finally get to the store, they would have to realise that small, crammed-up stores aren't that well-supplied. Bread lines were reported in many cities.

The law was also unclear about news kiosks and petrol stations – which, according to some interpretations, would have to stop working at 21 hours. Many newspaper publishers are seriously considering scuttling their Sunday editions because of this.

There is another loophole in the law, which was used by local authorities in Istrian towns – any area can proclaim itself to be "tourism zone" and thus be spared from the limits of this annoying law.

Most commentators consider this law to be hypocritical, ineffective and annoying. Many expect this law to be amended or abolished. If Sanader's government (which already reneged on its pre-election promise to immediately lower VAT rate from 22 % to 20 %) is serious about improving overall economic situation in Croatia, it should start with this.


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