FEATURE STORY

Serbia’s Shining, but Expensive, City Lights

February 10, 2014

The cost of staying warm and being able to eat enough during Serbia's long, cold winters makes daily life a struggle for many people.

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Heating bills are a particularly big problem in Serbia.
  • Households report high levels of financial stress, and often have to scale back on essentials just so they can pay off heating bills and buy enough food to survive the cold.

For Srdjan and his wife Jugoslava, their working class suburb in Belgrade holds the promise of a better life and more opportunities. But life is not easy by any measure.  

The family recently relocated to the capital from their small village near the Croatian border.  Srdjan came first and found a job driving buses from Zeleznik to downtown Belgrade for a salary of up to 25,000 dinars ($284) per month. Compared to his previous job as a gas station attendant during the summer and occasionally as a bus driver, this was a major step up.

After more than two years, he found an apartment big enough for his family, but the monthly rent of 16,000 dinars ($188), along with high heating costs, takes away a significant portion of the family budget.

As a region, Europe and Central Asia faces a unique problem in the form of long, harsh winters. This means families have to pay a lot more to stay warm and eat enough to survive such unrelenting conditions, compared to other, warmer parts of the world. On a daily basis, these costs add up, and $2.50 per person is often not enough. Consequently, many of these families live in poverty. 

The World Bank interviewed several families in the region to document the issues that the poor face. Most of these people said high heating bills, especially during the region’s long, cold winters were the biggest problem.

Things would be easier if Jugoslava could get a job, but cancer and a mastectomy have left her 90 percent disabled. Since she cannot lift anything heavy with her left arm, she is unable to work a range of jobs. The family receives some disability benefits and child allowance, but they still struggle to cope.

Any extra income would go a long way, especially in winter when heating costs soar, Jugoslava says.

“It is OK for now with his new job, but we will see what happens during the winter,” Jugoslava says. “But I hope I will manage to find a job in the meantime. Even if it is only 20,000 dinars more, it will make a difference.”

Extended families and continued ties to villages provide some respite for struggling families who have moved to cities. “We spend school holidays in villages with our parents... we have no expenses there,” Jugoslava said.

Help also comes from the village during winter, when their families send food.

“We only buy bread and milk,” Jugoslava says. “Sometimes we even get milk from the village because we can’t afford to buy it here. Sometimes we don’t have enough [money] to buy milk. Sometimes we do, when he [husband] gets paid more.”