Economic distress at root of protests in Belgrade After years of hardship, public seems determined to see things change

December 15, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- If the revolution comes, it will surely start beneath Zarko Korac's window.

Korac, a psychology professor at the University of Belgrade, peers into the courtyard every day as students gather to listen to speeches, blow whistles and launch their marches through the city to oppose the rule of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. Like nearly everyone else in this city, Korac is trying to figure out what is happening on the streets and behind closed doors.

"This is the beginning of the end of the regime," says Korac, who supports the opposition but brings a well-respected and clear-headed analysis to the current crisis. "We just don't know when the regime will end. But it will. We don't live in normal times around here."

After a wave of nationalism, warfare, international sanctions and economic hardship, a portion of the population appears to finally be waking up to the idea that things must change.

All one has to do is walk around this city, or go into the countryside, to see what lurks behind the daily protests: economic distress.

By old East Bloc standards, Belgrade used to be a cheerful place, with vibrant cafes, good music and animated people.

Now, it's a drab, beaten city with a dispirited underclass that goes through the motions.

The buses and the trolley still running are jammed. The shops are filled with goods, but most people have trouble mustering up enough money for dinner, let alone luxuries.

In the countryside, things appear even more bleak. Men loiter around town centers, drinking or selling black-market cigarettes. There aren't a lot of cars on the back roads.

In some places, firewood and coal are hauled from town to town on horse-drawn carts.

The black-market currency traders are starting to hedge their bets, too, because nearly everyone expects another devaluation. The traders seem to sense what everyone in the international community knows -- that the country is broke and living beyond even its meager means.

On the edge of Belgrade, the skeleton of a sports arena rises by a highway. The building hasn't been worked on for years.

"We're starting to look more and more like a failed society," Korac says.

Few people here have faith in any of the politicians to lead the country out of this mess.

Milosevic and his cronies with the Socialist Party of Serbia have been cast as the villains -- old-style Communists trying to hold on to their jobs. They didn't like the local elections that they lost last month, so they petitioned the courts to overturn the results, an act that triggered the crisis.

But the opposition, too, is flawed. Zoran Djindjic and Vuk Draskovic, the two most prominent opposition politicians, have in the past embraced Serbian nationalism.

They also travel with a cadre of rough-looking bodyguards, which is probably a necessity in a country where an 80,000-member police force is run by the president.

On a recent day, Djindjic popped out of his headquarters for a quick interview on independent radio station B-92. But no one on the street seemed to know who he was.

Korac, the professor, knows all the players. He might loathe Milosevic, but he understands why the leader moved to overturn the election results.

"Once you lose a bit of your power, the whole system crumbles," Korac says. "So, in a sense, Milosevic was right to annul the elections.

Korac believes that Djindjic is a pure power politician who isn't above using the student marchers to attain his goals. "He feels that the longer we stay in the streets, the more damage we do," he says. "My counter-argument has been, what happens if the people get tired?

"Draskovic is a more romantic guy," Korac adds. "He thinks this is going to be like Czechoslovakia, another velvet revolution. Stay in the streets for 37 days and the government goes down."

Will the organized unions join the students and shut down the country, an act that would critically damage Milosevic?

"I don't think that's coming," Korac says. "Milosevic won't allow it. You have to understand, he is a professional politician, an old-style Communist. He is good. Oh, he is very good."

There is also a collective amnesia. No one wants to admit that it was Serbian nationalism that contributed to the breakup of former Yugoslavia.

In the end, Korac says, the current demonstrations are like a pre-election campaign. Next year, the country goes to the polls to elect a president: "It's just a good start for the big campaign."

But he remains optimistic.

"Obviously, this is a fight between David and Goliath," he says. "The longer David stands on his feet, the weaker Goliath looks."

With that, the wily professor walks out of his office and into the courtyard.

Pub Date: 12/15/96

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