- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 29, 2002

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia Serbs weren't surprised when the army revealed that it's asking a quarter of its young conscripts to go home on weekends so they'll get a decent meal.
Two years after the country ousted Slobodan Milosevic, its troublemaker-in-chief, it has come to this: A jaded generation rumbles with discontent, the economy is in disorder and not even the troops have enough to eat.
President Vojislav Kostunica, who led the rebellion that toppled Mr. Milosevic, promised to make Serbia a blissfully boring place where people would live well and politics wouldn't matter. Instead, as he seeks the Serbian presidency in today's elections, those promises are unfulfilled.
"There was some hope for this country when we got rid of Milosevic," said Predrag Karaulic, a university student. "Now the hope is fading fast."
Belgrade still bears the scars of a 1999 NATO air war that punished Mr. Milosevic for his crackdown on independence-minded ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.
The only bombed building under repair is the towering former Communist Party headquarters in New Belgrade; a wealthy businessman wants to turn it into a trade center. The others, including army and police headquarters, remain in ruins symbols of Mr. Milosevic's defiance of the West.
Those are the visible wounds. The real agony lies deep within a society that expected better much better after Mr. Milosevic was ousted.
Many of the problems left from the Milosevic regime 50 percent unemployment, stagnating living standards remain unresolved because of a bitter power struggle between Mr. Kostunica and rivals led by Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.
Although Mr. Kostunica is running neck and neck with his nearest challenger in the polls, he scores higher in personal popularity and is likely to have the edge if a runoff election becomes necessary.
But ordinary Serbs, locked in a daily struggle to make ends meet, are losing faith in a leadership perceived as doing little to lift the cash-strapped Balkan country out of its 40 percent annual inflation and $10 billion foreign debt.
"What is there to hope or vote for?" asked Ksenija Milosavljevic, a retired bank employee, as she strolled through Belgrade's Bajlonova Pijaca open-air market, looking for salad greens and potatoes.
"I could spend my whole monthly pension in one day here, just for food," said Mrs. Milosavljevic, 68. "While the politicians argue, people suffer and ask, 'When will it end?'"
Average monthly salaries have doubled to $150 in Serbia since Mr. Milosevic's ouster. But prices have doubled, too. When the International Monetary Fund pressures Serbia to align its economy with European standards, Serbs feel it in a 50 percent increase in electricity prices.
Even the army is hard-pressed for cash. Maj. Gen. Milan Jevtic said last week that as many as one in four of the 70,000 troops was being encouraged to eat at his parents' homes on weekends to help the military save rations for winter.
Premier Djindjic's pro-Western government, in charge of the economy, worked hard to bring the country into Europe's mainstream. Many Serbs see joining the European Union and the promise of Western investment, open borders and free trade as the only way out of their misery.

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