Living in Yugoslavia, hopeless and afraid

A beaten state suffers poverty, gang war and an enduring Milosevic

March 28, 2000|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- What's it like to live in Europe's outcast state, where gang wars flare, jobs are scarce and Slobodan Milosevic rules?

"It is like you're in a prison," says a Belgrade University student, sipping coffee and pondering the state of a nation. He won't allow his name to be used, which goes to show that some things have not changed here: People are still afraid of the authorities.

One year after NATO launched its air war to force Milosevic's troops out of Kosovo, Yugoslavia remains defeated and diminished. The country that stood against NATO bombers for 78 days struggles to recover.

Jewels and designer jeans can be found in the shops, but there are daily lines for staples such as milk and cooking oil.

Cafes are filled with bitter coffee and cheap talk about pulling down the Milosevic government, but public protest is muted.

Motorists in decade-old vehicles face routine checks by police, while gangsters in shiny new Mercedes seem to have the run of the place.

Presiding over all this, still, is Milosevic, the Balkan survivor who has lost wars and land in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, and been indicted as a war criminal by an international tribunal.

"The atmosphere is like `Waiting for Godot,' " says political analyst Bratislav Grubacic, referring to the Samuel Becket play about two men waiting for a third who never comes. "The authorities have no idea what to do but to stay in power. The opposition is still weak and divided."

The war for Kosovo, Serbia's religious and cultural heartland, is akin to a nightmare, to be endured and quickly forgotten.

Though policed by thousands of NATO-led troops and administered by the United Nations, Kosovo officially remains a Serbian province. Unofficially, the province is all but lost, a reality made clear by a border checkpoint that divides Kosovo and Serbia, which, along with West-leaning Montenegro, is all that remains of Yugoslavia.

Violence and poverty

Meanwhile, there are problems galore in Yugoslavia, ringed by Western troops and cut off from Europe's mainstream.

Gang warfare is in full roar, highlighted by such incidents as the killing in January of Zeljko Raznatovic, a much-feared, much-reviled, former paramilitary leader known as "Arkan." Since then, more than a dozen hits have taken place, the latest on March 20, when Branislav Lainovic, an ex-paramilitary leader and one-time Arkan critic, was gunned down near a hotel in Belgrade.

The economy is a mess -- the gross domestic product plummeted from $17 billion to $14 billion last year -- yet, there is a burgeoning black market for goods such as cigarettes, cars, gasoline and music CDs. One of the country's young "entrepreneurs" is Milosevic's son, Marko, who runs the Bambiland theme park and Scandal perfume shop.

During the war, 10 Yugoslav dinars bought 1 Deutsche mark (about 50 cents). Now, it takes 22, nearly four times the official exchange rate. Unemployment is epidemic, with an official rate of 27 percent, although most contend it's much higher. Those with jobs have seen their wages fall to a monthly average of $40. Even then, they often wait months for payment.

War and sanctions

The landscape is scarred with bombed-out bridges, factories and army installations, the result of billions of dollars in war damage. Along a main Belgrade street targeted by NATO bombers, the rubble has been cleared away but devastated buildings that served as army and police headquarters remain. A few highway and railway bridges have been repaired, and power supplies, cut during the war, have been restored.

"The government is doing everything to address the problems," says Mirodrag Popovic, the Serbian government's deputy information minister. "We don't have sufficient means to do it. We are under severe sanctions. What they [the West] did is more or less the same, like in Iraq. They managed to demolish the infrastructure of the country."

Over the years, Yugoslavia has faced a varying regime of Western economic sanctions that have targeted such items as arms and fuel, blocked investment and frozen overseas assets.

Western bombs may have turned out the lights in Belgrade and blown up Milosevic's bedroom, but they couldn't topple the Yugoslav leader.

Now, he's gearing up for this year's elections at a date yet to be set.

Last month, Milosevic told his Socialist Party faithful that the country resisted "aggression" on all fronts, and he derided the political opposition as "a group of paid weaklings, speculators and thieves who, using money from abroad and the fact that the population lives poorly, manipulate the people, especially the young."

The battered press

The government isn't just taking on the opposition. It's also taking on the press.

Tough press laws and steep fines have hamstrung independent media outlets, as most of the population continues to be fed a steady diet of state-run news. The latest government action shut down a few independent television stations because they don't have licenses or haven't paid for their frequencies.

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