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Bosnia's first taste of the Big Mac

india Updated: Aug 03, 2011 09:24 IST

AFP
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It took four years, a lot of red tape and a little local jealousy but the Big Mac is the new hero on Marshal Tito street in downtown Sarajevo and, for many, a milestone in Bosnia's post-war recovery.

In the week since the country got its very first McDonald's, crowds -- mainly young people under 40 -- have poured non-stop into the gleaming new franchise of the US food giant.

"It is a step towards Europe, which seems really far away from here," said client Admir Ceco, tucking into a cheeseburger.

The splashy opening last week drew hundreds of eager Sarajevans who lined up on the main thoroughfare named after the late communist dictator to get a taste of the West, via American-style hamburgers and fries.

"We are becoming a part of western Europe, of a world from which we were cut off," local politician Aner Begic, 32, said as he munched on his meal.

"McDonald's is a symbol of the Western world and I'm thrilled that Bosnia is joining it," he said.

EU hopeful Bosnia is one of the last countries in Europe to get McDonald's. Only Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo are still without, while Serbia and Croatia have had it for years.

Already, the opening's VIP lineup hinted this was big -- and a touch ironic given the pressure on McDonald's back home where it's blamed for contributing to the US obesity epidemic, or in other regions where it's frowned on as US cultural imperialism.

The head of the three-member presidency, Zeljko Komsic, US ambassador Patrick Moon and Sarajevo Mayor Alija Behmen were all on hand, with Behmen given the honour of buying the first burger in what not long ago was a rundown, two-storey university restaurant.

"This is enormous for Sarajevo," he said. "The direct effect is giving jobs to about a hundred people. But by coming to Sarajevo, McDonald's is sending a positive message to other investors."

Even potential competitors were excited.

Local press reports said the celebrated "cevabdzinica" shops that sell the ubiquitous "cevapi" -- grilled lamb or beef slathered with raw onions and local cheese on a flat roll called "somun" -- tried to block McDonald's arrival, scared the newcomer would steal their clients.

"This fight between us and McDonald's is invented and absurd. There is room enough for everyone and competition can only be positive," protested Adnan Mrkva, owner of one of the oldest and most popular "cevabdzinicas".

To lighten the mood, he welcomed McDonald's in the local way by sending over a giant plate of cevapi to the opening. "They were surprised at first, but called later to say they appreciated it," he said.

Years of isolation brought on by Bosnia's inter-ethnic wars of the early 1990s are slowly easing. International brands are moving in and Bosnians can head out to most EU states since December without a visa, even if this still seems a far-off dream in an impoverished state with 43 percent unemployment.

While foreign direct investment slumped 21 percent in 2010, this was less than feared and the overall economy showed the first timid signs of recovery after a 2009 recession, according to official figures.

For many, the arrival of a huge name like McDonald's is a clear sign that progress is "irreversible" -- despite Bosnia's negative assessments by international credit rating agencies thanks to its shaky political environment.

Since the 1992-95 war, Bosnia consists of two semi-independent entities each with its own government, linked by weak central institutions.

Their functioning is often blocked by inter-ethnic wrangling, which has thwarted formation of a central government since October elections, left Bosnia dragging behind Balkan neighbours in EU rapprochement and complicated business.

"We faced problems with a very complex system of government and administration, a difficult tax system and patent corruption," said Adi Hadziarapovic, McDonald's local marketing director.

"This is why the process took so long -- four years!" he said.

But the food empire aims to plug on, with permits already filed for a Sarajevo drive-in and plans for a dozen more outlets across the country.

As for the fate of cevapi, few seem worried, including Mayor Behmen who joked that McDonald's never threatened pizza in Italy nor sausages in Munich.

Others agreed, like student Milos Lukic as he ate at a cevabdzinca in Bascarsija, the capital's picturesque Ottomon old town.

"Coming to Sarajevo without eating cevapi or getting a whiff of its distinctive aroma would be like going to Paris without seeing the Eiffel tower," he said.