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Serbia’s Capital Untouched By War, But Ravaged Within

April 19, 1996

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ A sunny, spring day in Belgrade: busy streets, full cafes, fancy boutiques, colorful shop windows.

A glimpse at the Serbian capital leaves the impression that wars in neighboring Croatia and Bosnia, widely blamed on Serb politicians, have left no mark.

Natives know better. The war, they say, has made a cosmopolitan capital of 2 million people feel like a provincial town.

``Everything is different, although on the surface it seems that nothing has changed,″ said 29-year-old Lana Djukic, sipping coffee in a downtown cafe. ``Belgrade has lost its soul.″

Unlike Sarajevo and Zagreb, the Bosnian and Croatian capitals, not a single shell landed on Belgrade. But Belgraders say their city is no longer the multicultural, tolerant and intellectual place it once was.

Like other cities in the old Yugoslav federation, Belgrade is feeling the departure of thousands of its best-educated young people.

They left because they didn’t want to fight, because war and international sanctions ruined the economy and their prospects, because of the policies of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic _ first nationalist, now neo-Communist.

The disintegration of the old Yugoslavia, four years of ethnic conflict and population shifts have had a huge impact.

An estimated 400,000 young people _ about half from Belgrade _ who left Yugoslavia for the West have been replaced by 700,000 Serb refugees from Bosnia and Croatia.

Black marketeers and criminals who prospered under sanctions are now at the top of the social structure.

``Belgrade has been deeply shaken,″ said sociologist Sreten Vujovic. ``It has turned to the past and closed, instead of further opening to the world.″

Situated at a crossroads of East and West at the heart of the Balkans, Belgrade was not blessed with many historical monuments or fine art. But even under stern Communist rule, it had the feel of an international city.

In the late 1980s, Serbia was engulfed in Milosevic’s nationalism. Soon taken up in other Yugoslav republics, nationalism led to war.

Belgrade still remains multiethnic, but is less tolerant. Resentment against non-Serbs has resulted in attacks on mosques and Roman Catholic churches, blamed mostly on disgruntled refugees forced out of Bosnia and Croatia. Most Serbs are Eastern Orthodox.

Refugees’ rural habits and language differ greatly from those of natives. Although they generally are less rural and somewhat more prosperous than the Muslim refugees who have flooded Sarajevo, they have brought along new lifestyles, values and resentments.

``They have occupied Belgrade and left no room for us,″ said Tatjana Tosic, a 33-year-old linguist.

The newcomers ask for folk music in the disco Tosic frequents, sing Serb nationalist songs and park cars in the middle of the street. She finds them pushy and intolerant.

Newcomers themselves are generally less than pleased to be in Belgrade, but feel that the capital deserves to share their woes.

``You pushed us into the war,″ said Milan Cuturilo, 38, a refugee and former soldier from Grahovo in western Bosnia. ``Now you have to learn to live with us, and if we prove to be stronger it is not our fault.″

Some refugees are among Serbia’s new rich _ those who profited from war shortages, looting, and breaking sanctions.

Remnants of the middle class rarely take up such business and have withdrawn to their homes, narrow circles of friends and a few chosen restaurants and cafes.

Belgrade is divided between impoverished natives and ``a small group of the new, half-educated economic elite,″ said sociologist Silvano Bolcic. ``Educated youth is forced to do jobs way below their qualifications. So, in many cases, they choose to leave.″

One of the latest to make that decision is 27-year-old Jelena Cvorovic, who is leaving this summer to complete a doctorate in anthropology in the United States.

With a job at Belgrade University, she would earn just enough to pay her electricity bill.

``Anyone who wants to study and do an honest job cannot survive here anymore,″ she said. ``Even hope that something will change has gone.″

The effort to save a more tolerant, European Belgrade is over, said Bogdan Petrovic, an unemployed 29-year-old computer expert.

``We have lost the battle,″ he said. ``Now, we are a minority.″

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