Devastated textile town offers lessons for Serbia

Thu May 3, 2012 3:14pm EDT
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By Aleksandar Vasovic

LESKOVAC, Serbia (Reuters) - The Zele Velkovic factory in Leskovac, once famous for its thriving textile industry, was one of the city's biggest when Yugoslavia started to implode in 1991.

The next two decades brought a slow decline fueled by chronic mismanagement and a dramatic loss of competitiveness. Where more than 600 worked, now just 70 walk the factory's cavernous halls, the deafening hammering of its old industrial looms barely disguising the emptiness.

Across the street, however, a factory hums and buzzes with the sound of modern machinery, looking like a sleek and shiny spaceship parked in a scrapyard.

Germany's Falke clothing producer is one of a handful of new arrivals to Leskovac, local proof of the recent textile revival around parts of Europe as some manufacturing is relocated from increasingly costly Asia.

"We're hoping for 4,000 jobs by the end of the year," said the city's energetic mayor Slobodan Kocic.

With its dramatic de-industrialization, shrinking population and rising unemployment, Leskovac is a study in the many things that have gone wrong for Serbia as well as the many that could yet go right.

Kocic's Democratic Party and its head Boris Tadic bid for re-election on Sunday in presidential and parliamentary polls, touting success in dragging Serbia to within a whisker of talks with the European Union on future membership.

The country's dominant party, it faces its strongest challenge yet from the Serbian Progressive Party, right-wing populists led by presidential challenger Tomislav Nikolic.   Continued...

An employee works at the Zele Velkovic textile factory in the southern Serbian town of Leskovac, April 19, 2012. REUTERS/Marko Djurica