A worker's extra cash can go from pockets to profits

In a success story that any capitalist entrepreneur would be proud of, Mila Suka has parlayed a $40,000 investment - partly put up by relatives in the West - into a $2 million private business.

His firm, Souvenir, turns out such items as photo albums with copper covers handwrought in the tradition of Suka's native Bosnia. He will shortly be expanding his export line by marketing a decorative plate of Boston.

The Yugoslav government hopes that Suka's example will inspire Yugoslavs now working abroad as ''guest workers.'' By manning the assembly lines in German auto plants or sweeping the streets of Cologne, these workers have accumulated a hefty $8 billion of hard currency in Yugoslav bank accounts, and probably a further $8 billion in Western European accounts. When West Germany's guest-worker councilor came to Belgrade recently, she visited Souvenir to scout out the possibilities for Yugoslavs returning from sojourns in West Germany.

Whether returning guest workers will in fact take the plunge and turn their hard-currency interest-earning savings accounts into risk capital is still an open question. And the reason it is still an open question is the fickleness of various Yugoslav government authorities.

For now Yugoslavia's current accounts deficit and falling exports to the West have induced the government to encourage private export enterprises. But nothing guarantees that in another year or two there won't be a reversion to a purist anticapitalist binge.

Furthermore, not all local authorities are as permissive as those in Belgrade. The city has made a special waiver to allow private entrepreneur Suka to employ more than five persons; after two years of operation Souvenir now has 33 employees.

Under the circumstances, Yugoslavs, like one Montenegrin cafe owner in Sutomore, find it safer to invest only enough to keep their cafes going during the summer tourist season, then go back to Germany over the winter to make more money.

To attract more investment by the Sutomore cafe owner and others like him, the Yugoslav government liberalized tax and tariff laws three or four years ago. Yugoslavs who have worked abroad more than six years may now bring back duty-free tools and machinery worth up to 800,000 dinars ($24,000).

People may also pool their resources and duty-free quotas, so that 10 returning workers, for example, could import machinery worth up to 8 million dinars ($240,000).

With this capital investment returnees might set up totally private small-scale industry or service shops. Or they might contract supply parts for a large enterprise in the social sector. In the latter case the import allowance of the state-owned enterprise could also be added to the individual import quotas.

Whatever the arrangement, the new companies are supposed to get preferential treatment from local authorities in purchasing necessary equipment like cars or in getting needed technical assistance.

Taxation for the fledgling enterprises is also favorable, with full tax exemption in the first year of operation, 75 percent exemption in the second year, 50 percent in the third year, 25 percent in the fourth year.

At present 96 such companies have been founded, employing some 3,000 people, according to Dusan Knezevic, assistant secretary of the Federal Committee for Labor, Health, and Social Security.

Returning workers may also get especially favorable credit terms if they go back into agriculture and need financial assistance to set up pig, chicken, vegetable farms, or orchards.

All these measures represent an effort to transform the important hard-currency earnings of Yugoslavs working abroad from one-time remittances to renewable capital. Ever since the early 1970s the country's current account balance has depended heavily on these remittances, but the end of their increase is in sight with economic recession in Western Europe. Mr. Knezevic observes proudly that Yugoslavs are good workers and are the last to be fired - but the statistics of decline from the 1973 peak of 1.1 million Yugoslav workers abroad to the 780,000 at the end of 1980, suggest limits to this particular golden egg unless the egg can be made productive.

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