BELGRADE — WHEN Branislav Cvijovic started his own business in 1968, he was almost considered a traitor. ``The authorities did everything they could to stop me,'' he recalls. ``No bank would give me credit, and state-owned companies did everything to avoid buying my products.''
Times have changed. Mr. Cvijovic smiles and points to an award posted on his office wall from the Chamber of Commerce. It congratulates him for the success of his firm, Modul, which produces spare parts for machine tools.
The Yugoslav authorities are promoting private enterprise as a means to boost the country's sagging economy. In recent months, they have passed a series of laws lifting restrictions on the sectors which private businesses can enter, on the number of workers they can employ, and on the amount of foreign currency they can use for imports.
``The political attitude has changed. In fact, society's whole attitude has changed,'' says Cvijovic. ``Everyone admits now that private production is more efficient than social production.''
Until the recent legal changes, no private companies were allowed to exist under Yugoslav law, so potential entrepreneurs such as Cvijovic were forced to pose under the guise of ``cooperatives.''
The decision to unleash private enterprise draws plaudits from Yugoslav and Western economists. They say hundreds if not thousands of Yugoslavs presently working abroad in the West will take their billions of dollars of savings and open new restaurants, hotels, and other desperately needed services.
``This one measure is worth more than all the other economic reforms,'' says a Western diplomat. ``Just imagine all those Yugoslavs in Germany, with $15 [billion] to $20 billion tucked away in banks, coming home and setting up businesses.''
``When people start building private hotels, it will force up the quality of our entire industry,'' adds a hopeful Pave Zupan-Ruskovic, director of Yugoslavia's largest tourist firm, the Atlas Travel Agency. ``Private owners always give their best.''
Problems remain. Entrepreneurs still complain that high taxes, totaling as much as 80 percent of profits, stifle them. Cvijovic's firm only employs 12 workers and works out of a suburban villa here, turning down work and unable to expand.
``I could take on at least 20 workers, but there's no economic justification,'' he explains. ``Under the present tax laws, I would lose money.''
Prime Minister Ante Markovic has promised to change the punitive tax regulations by June. Cvijovic is waiting impatiently.
``I wanted to have my own business so badly that I was willing to go ahead despite the difficulties,'' he says. ``Now I hope the new changes will let me go much further.''