Washington Post - Serbia faces harsh Balkan Winter

By Misha Savic - Associated Press Writer

>Monday, Dec. 13, 1999

NIS, Yugoslavia –– Logs crackled in the stove and the vast, old-fashioned kitchen of the Jakovljevic family filled with pleasant warmth. A huge pile of chopped wood lay nearby, the family's ultimate defense against the harsh Balkan winter and Slobodan Milosevic's grip on power.

Last week, the Yugoslav government finally released an emergency shipment of heating oil intended for Nis and Pirot, cities controlled by Milosevic critics. The oil, which the European Union sent to bolster anti-Milosevic forces, had been held by customs authorities for two weeks.

Although the supplies were welcomed, many residents of Nis, Serbia's third largest city, are relying on their own resourcefulness to get them through the winter.

"War or no war, we must keep warm," gray-haired Milesa Jakovljevic said. The rotund, 63-year-old housewife stoked the fire and rubbed her hands with a complacent smile.

But the modest suburban home she and her husband built some 30 years ago shows visible signs of decay, much as everything else in a country that in less than a decade has turned from the most prosperous East European state into an international pariah, notorious for ethnic conflicts and impoverished by wars and punitive sanctions.

Recalling happier days when "we could afford new shoes" and "just pressed the button" to switch on central heating, Jakovljevic said she believes things will change "when Serbia has fewer enemies and more friends in the world."

Her words echoed the official line of Milosevic's government that seeks to explain the crash in living standard and the country's bad reputation by accusing the West of trying to punish the Serbs for their "struggle against the New World Order and American imperialism."

As in all other Serbian cities, unemployment in Nis – Serbia's main industrial zone – exceeds 50 percent. Those who work receive average monthly pay worth less than $50. Retirees' monthly checks, coming only after lengthy delays from the state-run pension fund, average less than $40.

Along with government mismanagement of the economy, which has produced hyperinflation, international trade sanctions in place since 1992 force the majority of Serbs to struggle just to stay fed and warm.

After the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia earlier this year badly damaged oil refineries and power grids, the now barely functioning infrastructure has become a sad reminder of the country's past efforts to modernize.

"What we're going through is like a weird space travel back to the times when fighting for land, for religion, for survival was part of everyday life," sociologist Vladan Avramovic said.

Unemployed since losing his job at a university institute two years ago, Avramovic is struggling to keep his family of four warm in their apartment in a high-rise on the outskirts of the capital, Belgrade. Like most of his neighbors, he is trying to install a wood-burning stove in what used to be a modern building in the 1970s.

Those who have solved such basic problems – like the Jakovljevics in Nis – appear lucky, even happy, by comparison. Avramovic says that is common among the older generations with their memories of World War II and the early days of communism.

Having overcome past hardships, aging Serbs "take pride that they are unbeatable when it comes to basic survival," Avramovic said.

The generational divide can be seen in the cozy kitchen of the Jakovljevic home.

Mrs. Jakovljevic's grandchildren, 23-year-old Marina and 21-year-old Aleksandar, moan when asked what they think about life in Yugoslavia.

"This is no life," Marina said with a tone of finality. "I want to be troubled with questions like where I'll travel for holidays, or which CDs to buy, not whether we'll starve or freeze."

Aleksandar said they are both ardent supporters of the Otpor (Resistance) student movement that, together with opposition political parties, is demanding Milosevic's resignation and fair elections.

The demands are voiced at nearly daily protest rallies in larger cities, begun after Milosevic's crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists in Serbia's Kosovo province ended with NATO intervention and de facto Serb loss of the cherished province.

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