BELGRADE -- The Housing Sale of the Century is on in Belgrade. There are no "For Sale" signs. Utmost discretion surrounds all transactions. But in the past few months, several hundred choice houses have been sold for a steal -- no more than $50 each.
The buyers have been mainly former high Communist officials, retired generals and ministers.
It is an ironic new twist in a tale that began in 1945 when the Communists seized power -- and with it private property. The most important Communist officials appropriated for themselves the best homes in Dedinje, a leafy suburb in the hills above Belgrade, where two royal castles were located among residences of foreign ambassadors, leading industrialists, merchants and bankers.
The current sale ostensibly fits the new privatization climate that followed communism's collapse. But there seems to be a tacit conspiracy at work between today's regime and its supporters. Given the hyperinflation that is destroying Serbia's economy, properties are sold at giveaway prices as a way to secure support within the establishment for Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.
The prices were set a while ago by local assessors and have no been adjusted for the inflation that has seen the dinar move from 10 to a dollar in 1990 to, as of Thursday, 13.6 million to the dollar. When the properties are offered, they are not advertised openly. Only one person is allowed to go after each property, the official already living there.
The open season on housing was kicked off by Mr. Milosevic himself. He obtained a mortgage to buy his luxurious villa two years ago. Today, his mortgage payments are less than $10 a month and sinking. But compared with what came later, he is paying through the nose.
According to documents of the administrative commission of th federal Parliament, the following equivalent prices are among those set for Dedinje villas:
* $28 for a 1,776-square-foot villa occupied by Peko Dapcevic, a wartime general under Josip Broz Tito. The house is near Mr. Milosevic's home on Tolstoy Street.
* $17 for the 1,905-square-foot home occupied by retired Gen Milutin Moraca, directly opposite Marshal Tito's former villa on the exclusive Uzicka Street.
* $26 for the 2,239-square-foot villa occupied by forme Communist Party Secretary Mijalko Todorovic, also on Uzicka Street.
The story came to the surface apparently because some current officials resented being left out of the distribution and feared that nothing would be left for them.
The whistle-blower was Aleksander Stefanovic, chairman of th Parliament's Administrative Commission. He told newspapers that during his predecessor's tenure, 101 apartments in Belgrade were sold for a total of about 5,000 Deutschmarks, about $30 each.
He said some 8,000 homes have been distributed by officials t their relatives and friends at nominal cost.
Mr. Stefanovic's solution was to publicly attack the Diplomati Housing Office, one of the efficient and profitable enterprises that provide housing for foreign diplomats in Yugoslavia. He and his supporters demanded that the office be dismantled, a move that would provide a fresh crop of Dedinje villas and apartments for sale.
Because of Yugoslavia's disintegration and the wars in Croati and Bosnia, many countries either have closed their missions or reduced the number of diplomats in Belgrade. This has left the office with a number of empty villas and apartments. A spokesman for the office said that some vacated premises have been rented out to Yugoslav citizens.
Mr. Stefanovic and scores of other officials are now living in diplomatic apartments that they have rented at commercial prices. But Mr. Stefanovic has refused to pay his rent, $500 a month.
But the office expects that foreign diplomatic and commercial personnel will return once the war in Bosnia ends.