updated 3/28/2009 11:09:18 PM ET 2009-03-29T03:09:18

If anyone ever stood a chance of escaping the global financial crisis, it might have been Almija Muminovic.

Ask her how much she's got stashed in one of those teetering banks, and she looks puzzled, then breaks into a toothless grin. "That's so far away from me," says Muminovic, whose life savings — a few notes and coins — are stuffed beneath a mattress.

The 54-year-old widow, haggard after a life of hardship, ekes out an existence on a wind-swept hill overlooking Sarajevo. She had a milking cow, but had to sell it last month to make rent. Now she survives on a meager patch of vegetables and a $190 monthly pension.

Her struggle points up this harsh reality: When the global economy falters, there's really nowhere to hide. Least of all in Bosnia, where the unemployment rate — officially 43 percent and rising — is among Europe's highest.

Fourteen years after Bosnia's devastating 1992-95 war, the economy is still a wreck. Experts warn that it could get even worse, especially this year and next, as the world recession hammers away at the former Yugoslav republic.

In a new report, the World Bank offers what it calls "a gloomy picture": rising joblessness, shrinking exports and a reduction in remittances — the cash that Bosnians living abroad send home.

Like other economies in transition, Bosnia's "is almost certain to experience a drastic reduction in the rate of growth," it predicts, with real GDP growth set to plunge by 70 percent or more this year.

Bosnia's misery is manifold, but its staggeringly high unemployment is grabbing the most attention. Officials say 6,500 people lost their jobs in the last two months alone.

Many paid under the table
Officials caution that the 43 percent jobless figure includes the so-called "gray economy," in which people are paid under the table. Take all those unofficial jobs out of the mix, and the true jobless rate is closer to 22 percent: still nearly three times the U.S. rate.

And in Bosnia, jobless benefits are as scarce as openings. People who lose their jobs get health insurance for the entire period they're out of work, but only $133 a month in unemployment benefits — and that runs out after six months.

To be sure, there seem to be far more Bosnians working than the government data might suggest.

Wander the capital at 7 a.m., and you'll see streetcars stuffed with rush-hour commuters, boulevards jammed with Sarajevans driving new cars, and cafes packed with office workers jabbering on iPhones.

But in the countryside, there are heartbreaking scenes of abject poverty. It's the kind of suffering that puts a human face on Bosnia's leading economic indicators and its bleak prospects, at least in the near term, for prosperity.

Earlier this month, in the northwestern town of Prijedor, Dusan Puzigaca, 57, and his 52-year-old wife, Nada, committed suicide. The letter the despondent couple left behind cited their joblessness and their inability to repay loans.

Financial trouble is a common reason for suicide, and there has been a spate of such deaths recently. But the way the Puzigacas took their lives was telling: They drank large amounts of vinegar, police said, presumably because they couldn't afford sleeping pills.

"We have a small caste of people who live well, and an army of poor," said Perica Jelecevic, labor minister in the Muslim-Croat part of Bosnia. "Fourteen years after the war, we haven't really found a solution to this unemployment problem."

Most of the country's current economic dysfunction began with the war, part of the late strongman Slobodan Milosevic's bloody campaign to break apart ex-Yugoslavia.

The Dayton peace accords that ended the war carved up Bosnia into two fairly autonomous ethnic ministates: a republic run by Orthodox Christian Serbs, and a federation shared by Muslim Bosniaks and Roman Catholic Croats, both overseen by an international administrator.

From a business perspective, the arrangement has produced a bureaucracy from hell.

The government is a three-headed hydra, with a presidency that includes representatives from all three ethnic groups. Government agencies and local institutions frequently get bogged down in ethnic mistrust.

And because the gray economy has robbed the treasury of tax revenue, employers are saddled with astonishingly high costs for social security, health care and other taxes — levies that require companies to pay 68 percent more on top of each worker's take-home wages.

By far the worst wartime legacy is the carnage itself: an estimated 113,000 dead.

"It's a huge loss of human capital. You can't compensate for that," said Fikret Causevic, a professor of economics at the University of Sarajevo. Bosnia, he said, "has been in a depression since 1995."

A massive brain drain has also hampered postwar recovery. About 550,000 Bosnians — 15 percent of the total population of 3.6 million — live abroad. They do pump a lot of cash back into the underground economy: Officials say remittances total 23 percent of GDP, and added up to roughly $2.4 billion in 2007.

As the global meltdown eliminates jobs in North America and Western Europe, where most Bosnian expatriates live and work, there's already anecdotal evidence suggesting that some are returning — jobless — to their homeland.

Grim forecast
Despite the less-than-enticing environment, and membership in the EU at least a decade away, Bosnia has managed to attract some international investment, in part because foreign employers are exempt from some taxes for five years.

Arcelor Mittal, the world's largest steelmaker, employs about 3,000 people in the central town of Zenica, and automobile upholstery manufacturer ASA Prevent employs another 3,500.

But nationwide, the average monthly salary is still a paltry $450. That's not enough to nudge someone north of the poverty line in Bosnia, where prices for food, fuel and housing are fast approaching Western levels.

As if that's not bad enough, officials warn that wages are likely to fall as the economy slows.

"In the second half of this year, this global crisis will really hit us over the head," said Jelecevic, the labor minister.

Though few expect another armed conflict, it's possible if social unrest swells along with the ranks of the unemployed. "The economic crisis can turn into a political crisis ... even a war," Causevic warned.

Muminovic, the widow who lost her cow, has already been through one of those. Yet even though she's reduced to bathing in a tub in her garden, she's a survivor.

"All I know is I have to survive because I have children," she said. "The best thing I can do is to spit in my hands and go to work. And plan and struggle. We have no choice."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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