Limits of brotherly love

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The Independent Online
THE PARADE of academics, members of the ruling Socialist Party and ordinary Serbians on state-controlled television had an orchestrated resonance echoing the Tito years. But it reflected a strong strand of authentic anti-Bosnian Serb opinion among Serbs living in Serbia, increasingly wearied by the effects of UN sanctions.

At first sight, Belgrade shows little outward evidence of the economic embargo; with the dinar at least temporarily stabilised at parity with the German mark, it shows every sign of having recovered from a grim winter of ultra-inflation and food shortages. The traffic flows freely through the city centre, thanks to plentiful, if dear (up to 75p per litre) roadside supplies of smuggled petrol. The shops are well-stocked with food, including fresh fruit and vegetables, clothes and shoes (Belgrade has more than its fair share of expensive shoe shops).

The underlying reality is harsher. Figures published last week show the average wage in former Yugoslavia at 164 dinars per month (around pounds 70). The cost of living is estimated at four times that.

As one middle-class Serbian housewife put it stoically last week: 'It's comforting to know the shops are full of goods even if you can't afford to buy them.' One explanation is that ever since Tito's time, when Yugoslavs had a freedom to travel denied other citizens of Communist Eastern Europe, the tradition of working abroad to send money and consumer goods home is deeply ingrained.

This is one reason why the bar on passenger traffic over Serbia's borders - under consideration as one possible way of tightening UN sanctions - would hit Serbians so hard. Many of Belgrade's citizens have family connections with Serbian peasantry in the countryside, currently enjoying a good harvest; and as Yugoslavia was, until the war, among the most prosperous of the former Communist bloc countries, they are used to superior-quality consumer goods.

Nevertheless, for the average Serb, the task of making ends meet is made all the more irksome by the war profiteers and mafiosi, many from Bosnia itself, who prowl restaurants and hotels in Belgrade with their gold chains, loud jackets and mobile phones.

Many Serbs are bound to blame the West if sanctions are tightened still further. But Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian President, may be right to calculate that nationalist feeling may be overridden by the threat of further international isolation. Some Serbs in Serbia see the Bosnian Serbs more as unruly first cousins than brothers. Aleksa, a driver in his late twenties, who works for a foreign employer, would like to see the war in Bosnia end, although he is puzzled over whether Mr Milosevic is serious this time about facing down the Bosnian Serb leadership in Pale.

At the same time he is emphatic that he and his friends would fight to keep Kosovo - the historical spiritual centre of Serbia, now overwhelmingly Albanian - from seceding.

The current closure of Belgrade airport to international traffic also has a strong psychological impact on travel-hungry Serbs - not to mention rendering Red Star Belgrade unable to compete in international football.

Because Serbia has yet to develop a fully mature post-Communist democratic culture, it is especially hard to gauge opinion on the street. But an increasingly diverse and vital press, beyond the state-controlled sector - such as the former Communist newspaper Borba, and Beta, the small and under-resourced news agency competing locally with the state-influenced Tanjug, are helping to change that.

Neverthless, Mr Milosevic's move against Pale has underlined a dilemma for liberal intellectuals and more democratic opposition politicians, such as Vuk Draskovic, who unequivocally backed Mr Milosevic's action last week. On one hand they want him to succeed in ending the war; on the other, if he does so it may make his elective autocracy even stronger than it is already.

(Photograph omitted)