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Brash Wealth, Pain And Poverty Mark Serbia’s Decline With AM-Yugoslavia

March 28, 1994

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Judging by the dozens of shiny new BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes tooling around Belgrade, Serbia is flourishing.

Only a closer look at the empty stores, curbside gasoline hawkers and the worn faces and clothes of pensioners searching for a bargain reveals Serbia’s true state.

Belgrade was always Balkan: chaotic, yet governed by complex custom; rundown, but simultaneously chic. It had flair. As capital of the old Yugoslav federation, it attracted talent from all over a now-broken country.

It was easy to meet people who traveled widely, were fluent in several languages and brought a Slavic zest to their European manners, education and fashionable dress.

Today, almost three years into war, those people are largely gone. About 100,000 have fled Belgrade: young men dodging the draft and intellectuals abandoning a society whose new rich are brash folk singers and armed war buccaneers.

This brain drain will continue even as the war in Bosnia winds down. Even though the Serb bombardment of Sarajevo has stopped, Serbia has become an international pariah, and few educated people see much future here.

Remaining intellectuals gather at watering holes like the Writers’ Club, still home of the best steaks and witty discussions stretching into the night. But the empty chairs and tables at the once-bursting club tell the real story.

″This year, I got New Year’s cards from South Africa, Australia and South America,″ said Dragana Milojevic, 29, a dentist. ″I didn’t get many from Belgrade.″

Today, those with money are a new class spawned by the crime and primitive capitalism sweeping Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Typically, the men sport loud clothes, gold chains, white socks and either a crew-cut or the flowing locks of a would-be rock star. The women are thin, with puffed-up hair, heavy makeup and short skirts.

In Serbia, the male role model is Zeljko Raznatovic, alias Arkan, a Belgrade cafe owner who led one of the toughest Serbian militias in the Croatian and Bosnian wars and then sat for a year in Serbia’s parliament.

The female heroine is Lepa Brena, the Bosnian-born star of folk songs interwoven with pounding rhythms and whining Oriental instruments.

Belgrade’s latest private TV station, Palma, owned by a senior figure in the ruling Socialist Party of President Slobodan Milosevic, offers budding Brenas their chance at fame. Every hour it carries a ″Folk Mikser,″ or Serbian music video.

The U.N. sanctions imposed for Serbia’s role in fomenting war are something of a boon to Palma TV. With the impunity of outlaws, it shows the latest movies, such as ″The Fugitive″ and ″Schindler’s List,″ and fears no lawsuit for breach of copyright.

Milosevic has similarly exploited the sanctions. Tapping Serbs’ traditional pride and fighting spirit, he has convinced many that the sanctions show the world is unfair to Serbs who are only defending their interests.

As a result, most people bear the hardships with a bitter, lonely resignation born of what political scientist Aleksa Djilas calls a typically East European mix of ″self-pity and narcissism.″

″Of course, the situation is unfair,″ said Jelena Spasic, 41, assistant in a rundown state sugar factory. ″Why did they impose sanctions on us? We have no way out. We didn’t deserve that. We Serbs are good people.″

Asked if this applied to Serb gunners who bombarded Sarajevo for almost two years, she replied: ″They didn’t attack anybody. Every cat has claws to defend when it’s in danger.″

Underneath this blind bravado lurks pain.

In January, Yugoslavia eradicated 10 million percent inflation by introducing a new dinar backed by its last foreign currency reserves. The government now prints only as many ″super dinars″ as it has German marks.

Prices are at West European levels. Phone bills have tripled and there are huge lines of complaining people at post offices. Pensioners managing on an average $20 a month comb garbage cans for food.

An hour away from Belgrade, in Vukovar, a Croatian town devastated by a Yugoslav army siege in the 1991 Serb-Croat war, the brash new class polishes its BMWs and starts drinking at noon in cafes.

Despite some reconstruction, few buildings are intact after the unbelievable explosion of hatred that burned and bombed this once-pretty Danube River town.

In Belgrade, a 35-year-old Serb refugee from the Croatian Adriatic port of Sibenik looks 10 years older as he stands in the spring rain.

He arrived two years ago, and is among the many refugees resented by Belgraders for having found a relatively good job in a state supermarket.

Yet his eyes are deep with sadness. ″It happens that I sometimes hit a kind of crisis. For instance, now, the warmer weather, it brings back memories of being by the sea.″

Nothing would ever take him back, he said, refusing to give his name out of fear of reprisal against his parents still in Sibenik.

″If I went back, I’d be a refugee there,″ he said. ″I’m a refugee for the rest of my life.″

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