<FONT size="1" color="gray" face="verdana">Photos by Haris Memija for Balkan Times </font><br><br>Northeastern Bosnia's Arizona market - the financial backbone of the region - is slowly being transformed from a crime haven to a legitimate place to do business.
by Beth Kampschror for Balkan Times in Sarajevo - 31/01/02
The heart of the Arizona Market in Bosnia's Brcko district looks like an American Wild West mining town 150 years ago, with its unpaved narrow streets and hundreds of pine-fronted stalls. The dizzying choice of products here - gleaming toilet bowls, juicy oranges, Levis jeans, bootleg CDs, all at super-low prices - contribute to the atmosphere of a free-for-all, as does Arizona's notorious reputation of being a centre of smuggling and prostitution in the Balkans.
But since the international community began cleaning up here two years ago, Arizona is much less "Wild West" than it used to be, said one market worker. The majority of cars pulling in now are full of families, not criminals.
"A huge number of buyers come from Croatia, most are from Slavonia [northeastern Croatia]," said Romeo Randovic, 41, who collects the DM2 parking fee at the marketplace. "They even come from Dubrovnik if they're in the mood. We have them from Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro."
Crowds at this Balkan shopping mecca are at their thinnest this time of year, Randovic said, but from early summer to late fall, daily customers number between 20,000 and 50,000. The Arizona Market has the largest concentration of businesses and shoppers in the area, and provided DM6.5m in taxes to the Brcko district government last year, according to the Office of the High Representative (OHR) in Brcko.
"My family directly depends on this," Randovic said, adding that he supports his two teen-aged sons by working 12-hour days here. "Those who produce the merchandise, those who sell it, those who buy and distribute it - everyone. This market has been feeding the people here for five years. One hundred thousand people would be out of work if they shut this place down."
By "they", Randovic means part of Bosnia's international community, which obviously frowns upon Arizona's bad reputation as a hotbed of smuggling, drug-running and prostitution, which it has had since its establishment in 1996.
But once an arbitration decision took effect in March 2000, making this formerly disputed area a multiethnic section of Brcko, the Brcko district took over regulating the market from the Muslim-Croat Federation. The local OHR office announced in October 2000 that it would lead a cleanup.
Now, Brcko district police patrol the 1.5-square kilometre market on foot. All 2,500 stalls and shops are licensed and required to pay taxes. An Italian company, Italprojekt, recently won a tender to renovate the market, which will include bringing running water, sewage and other infrastructure to the area.
"Ninety per cent of everything is new here," Randovic said. "I've been working here for three years. When I came, the majority of the shops were unofficial and didn't pay taxes. Inspectors from the Brcko district have been coming for two years - everyone's paying taxes, everything is regulated."
He said that so far, the paved roads and running water promised with the cleanup haven't materialised.
"They need guest services here, but now we don't have anywhere to go to the bathroom or to even wash our hands," he said.
None of the shopkeepers at the market wanted to go on the record. However, two brothers who sell clothing at the market did complain about the lack of infrastructure after months of paying taxes, and the daily police inspections.
"I'm not a criminal," said the older brother, adding that he didn't like being treated like one.
Shopkeepers, including some who have come from as far away as China, are still taking a chance on Arizona's future.
"Their merchandise is much cheaper [than in China]," said Dzan, who sells Nike bags for 10 marks and rayon flowers with plastic drops of "dew" on them. She came with her husband six months ago and already speaks enough Bosnian/Serbian to run her shop.
OHR-Brcko, meanwhile, asks those at Arizona to be patient while the place undergoes its transformation from outlaw territory to market town. A procedure that is estimated will take the next five years. Infrastructure will be the project's first priority.
" . it is going on as fast as it can, including the tender and all the plans," said OHR-Brcko spokesperson Suzana Pejcic. "You can't do it overnight."
While vendors are waiting for their new, improved market, other things have changed for the better. Crime here in 2001 was down 33 per cent from the year before. All of the nightclubs and all but one motel have been closed, with the Brcko district prosecutor winning prostitution convictions against some of the owners. The market's hours of operation are now limited to daytime only.
"The greatest achievements are increased security and diminished criminal activity, greater regulation . and a plan for redevelopment to provide superior infrastructure and a strong foundation for future growth," said Brcko District Supervisor Henry Clarke.