Brewery creates a social divide in Serbian town

APATIN, Serbia and Montenegro – The sale of a centuries-old brewery has radically changed life in this quiet country town, turning many locals into dinar millionaires in a rare rags-to-riches tale in impoverished Serbia. Property prices shot up and shiny new cars enlivened Apatin’s potholed roads after Belgian giant Interbrew last year bought Serbia’s largest beer maker, Apatinska Pivara. Strengthening its position in ex-communist Eastern Europe, Interbrew in October said it was acquiring the brewery in a 229-million-euro ($288.5 million) deal, one of the largest foreign investments since reformers toppled Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. Employees found themselves sitting on a virtual gold mine, with shares they received when the plant was privatized in the volatile 1990s suddenly worth a fortune in a country with an average monthly salary of 200 euros. While many Serbs complain that three years of Western-style economic and political reforms have brought them little good, shareholders in Apatinska Pivara have reason to celebrate. «Even by Western standards, many of them became rich,» said Milan Drazic, mayor of the municipality of 33,000 in Serbia’s breadbasket Vojvodina province by the Croatian border. He said workers at Apatinska Pivara, now employing about 650, held 1,000 shares on average, with ex-employees and others owning stock also benefiting. Interbrew at the time said there were up to 7,000 local retail investors in the company. Such a stake would be worth nearly 170,000 euros, or more than 11 million dinars, under Interbrew’s offer of 167.64 euros per share launched after it had secured 50.1 percent. But in Apatin, the jackpot is creating economic apartheid. Locals say armored vehicles and special guards were used to transport the money to a local bank from the capital, Belgrade. It turned Apatin, a typical mixture of drab socialist-era high-rises and run-down Habsburg-era townhouses, into one of Serbia’s richest municipalities per capita. Of 1,400 people in the Balkan state of 7.5 million who declared incomes of more than 700,000 dinars per year, 389 came from Apatin, most of them working at the brewery, Drazic said. They used their newfound wealth to buy real estate in Belgrade or in Vojvodina’s main city of Novi Sad, and cars, of course. «Two years ago you could only see Yugos in Apatin,» said local resident Milan Ergarac, referring to Serbia’s cheap, no-frills vehicle. «Today there is a nice selection of cars.» Shops and restaurants saw increased demand as those who became rich overnight went on a shopping spree, buying the latest television sets and other goods they had not been able to afford before. «An elderly couple came in and asked for the thickest piece of gold we had,» recalled a jewelry saleswoman. «It is good for the town but it is only temporary. It will last until they have no money left.» The acquisition gave Interbrew, whose brands include Stella Artois and Becks, control of a third of the market in the countries that emerged from old socialist Yugoslavia after it broke up in bloodshed during Milosevic’s rule. The world’s third-largest brewer, which is also present in Croatia and Bosnia, said the maker of Serbia’s popular Pils Light beer was in good shape and that it planned investments to boost capacity, possibly including other Interbrew brands. The sector has attracted major foreign interest in the last year, with Denmark’s Carlsberg buying the Celarevo brewery for 106.4 million euros and Turkey’s Anadolu Efes taking a majority in the smaller Pancevo plant. This is seen as good news in a country still struggling to recover from a decade of conflict and international isolation under Milosevic, and desperately in need of outside capital to rebuild an economy shaped by socialism and shattered by war. But some Apatin residents who did not own shares complained that the sale of the brewery, established in 1756, had helped only a minority and left most people as poor as ever. «The town is now divided between a few rich and a majority of poor,» said 34-year-old Marko Nikolic, one of the town’s roughly 5,000 unemployed. «There is a lot of bitterness.»