Back When Serbians Were the World's Poorest Billionaires
At the peak of Yugoslavia's hyperinflation, 500,000,000 dinar would have bought you a loaf of bread.
This article originally appeared on VICE Serbia
When Yugoslavia fell apart, Serbia was the only of the former partner republics that kept the dinar as its currency. The united, semi-communist dream of Yugoslavia had crumbled, and the dinar had crumbled with it.
Because of years of bad economic policy and later international sanctions imposed on Serbia for its role in the Balkan Wars, Serbia experienced some of the worst hyperinflation in history in the late 80s and early 90s. There was hardly anything produced in the country and with sanctions on import and export, prices went crazy. The Central Bank in Yugoslavia started pumping out new paper money without backing its value or controlling it in any way. More and more zeroes were added to the new notes.
So Serbians were billionaires for a while – but very poor ones at that. There was a war raging at just about hundred miles from the capital of Belgrade, and the people who still had jobs or made money on the black market would wake up in the morning with enough money to buy a loaf of bread and a bottle of milk. But by the afternoon, that money would be worth even less. A pack of cigarettes had one price in the morning but in the evening, you would pay the same price for a single cigarette.
My mother used to work as a banker and she saved some of the banknotes from the time. Today, they seem like toy money from a very twisted edition of Monopoly.
In 1988 – a few years before hyperinflation reached its peak – the first Yugoslavian banknotes with more than three zeroes were printed. The six republic members of Yugoslavia were already at odds at the time, so the Central Bank decided that for a while, the notes could depict only random faces of people who had never actually existed. Specific national heroes could offend the different ethnic groups who were still living and working together. This girl and the one below have both sprung from the illustrator's imagination.
Months before the start of the wars in 1991, the Yugoslav financial authority tried to prevent a financial crisis by devaluing the national currency and erasing a few zeroes so 10,000 old dinars were exchanged for 1 new one. It didn't help much – prices kept going up at a rate that was hard to keep up with.
By December 1993, prices doubled every few days. But while there were several more currency exchanges – like in 1993, when 1 new dinar was exchanged for 1,000,000 old ones – inflation was so unstoppable that the Central Bank had to keep adding zeroes to the dinar's banknotes.
A 50,000,000 dinar note depicting a random girl again. Rumour at the time was that the Central Bank still had this image lying around and decided to use it, because it thought that with inflation being so high the note wouldn't be in circulation for long anyway
When inflation in Yugoslavia reached its peak in January 1994 at 313 million percent, a series of strict economic measures brought it to its end. Finally, it made sense again to carry dinar banknotes in Serbia for longer than a day.
The economy hadn't recovered as such – but at least there weren't as many zeroes looking at us from our banknotes, silently mocking us.
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