Yugoslav government foots the bill for private enterprise

In Yugoslavia, private enterprise is gaining some luster - and the state is paying for it. With unemployment nearing 1 million, the government has embarked on a plan for energetic state support for private enterprise. It hopes that in a few years several hundred thousand of those now out of work will have jobs in the private sector.

Based on proposals made by a government think tank last year, the program would pull the country out of a grave economic crisis - and chip away at its $20 billion external debt and runaway inflation.

After the program was started, drastic investment cuts followed. Redundant and unprofitable state and regional enterprises are being trimmed and replaced by those with a smaller and more productive labor force.

Austerity measures adopted to qualify for Western and International Monetary Fund credits meant consumer belt-tightening. They also brought about a spurt in the unemployment rate, particularly among the young: 67 percent of the unemployed are under 30.

In bold language for a government calling itself socialist, the program said: ''Everyone should resolve his unemployment problem alone.'' It might have been Britain's Margaret Thatcher speaking.

But it also outlined how to do so, and government leaders backed it up by telling Communist Party purists and officials (fearful of competition) not to get in the way.

Yugoslavia went partly ''private'' after 1948 when it de-collectivized agriculture. Today, taxis and car services are almost all privately operated. There are 200,000 private shops - and there would be many more except for restrictions from lower-level, local authorities.

''Stop frightening yourselves that private enterprise can threaten socialism, '' Jure Bilic, a party leader in Croatia, told such people recently. ''We have to give people the opportunity to work with their own capital.'' Croatia is one of Yugoslavia's two most successful republics.

Development boosts for the so-called ''small economy'' - state-run enterprises of up to 200 employees - and the private sector are now on offer. These include:

* Credits and tax concessions to those creating jobs by opening, for example, food stores, catering units, handicraft shops, and service facilities.

* Allocation of machinery from state plants abandoned for economic reasons to workers wanting to start small factories or artisan workshops.

* Cutting the red tape that has discouraged Yugoslavs with jobs in Western Europe from bringing their savings home to start up on their own. (There are 600 ,000 of them, estimated to have $12 billion stashed away in Western accounts.)

East-bloc ideology still runs strong against private enterprise. Poland's farming is 75 percent private. But the formerly flourishing private business sector has lately been discouraged by a drive against ''profiteering'' and individual ''fortunes.'' The measures, such as stiffer taxation, hurt consumers as well as private businessmen.

Within the bloc, the private sector is genuinely accepted only in Hungary. It provides, usually profitably, many essential goods and services government enterprises have failed to deliver. The private sector accounts for only 3.5 percent of total retail trade, but that is almost twice what it was three years ago.

As in Yugoslavia, all this has its ideological opponents. But, said Politburo member Istvan Sarlos: ''Private initiative is part of our national wealth.'' Wherever it does not conflict with the ''characteristics of socialism,'' he said , it should be encouraged.

Bulgaria admits that tiny private plots recently allocated to members of its collective farms are producing one-quarter of all farm produce. But Bulgaria has no private sector as such. Nor do Romania and Czechoslovakia, though in both cases the main economy suffers from ''moonlighting'' and the slow pace of work at official jobs. Workers save their energies for undercover part-time jobs that yield them as much as a monthly wage.

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