STEVEN ERLANGERSerbia's Detroit that was: In distress and angry
May 31, 2000
KRAGUJEVAC, Serbia, May 24 -- Velimir Pajevic, a pediatric surgeon, says that the average size of the craniums of newborns here is one centimeter smaller than in 1991, a result of declining nutrition.
Kragujevac, the capital of Serbia in the early 1800's, is a city of nearly 200,000 people, built around the Zastava car and munitions factory, said to be the first factory built in the Balkans.
But after a decade of war, sanctions and decline, about 60 percent of those of working age are not working, said Branislav Kovacevic, president of the Sumadija Coalition, a regional opposition group in this traditional heartland of Serbia.
Zastava, which employed 40,000 people 10 years ago, now employs 4,000, officials here say. Some 20,000 people are officially unemployed, while 35,000 others are on "paid leave" from Zastava and its associated companies.
Branko Vuckovic, a reporter and editor with Radio Kragujevac, said the city used to be the Serbian Detroit. "Now it's the Serbian Gdansk," he said, referring to the Polish shipbuilding city, where Solidarity was born, that no longer makes many ships.
He gestured to the remains of a few espressos and mineral waters on a cafe table. "That's about 100 dinars," he said, or about $2.50 at the unofficial rate of exchange. "Those on paid leave from Zastava are paid 350 dinars a month -- just three times what's on this table."
The government is repairing part of Zastava bombed by NATO during the war, and says it has plans for greatly expanded car production. But few here believe such assertions, saying the only future for the factory is an assembly arrangement with a more modern car company, currently impossible because of international sanctions.
Life is so hard here, for so many, that this is known as "the valley of the starving." Of course, that is an exaggeration, since many city dwellers get by because of their connections to the land, said Borivoje Radic, head of the city's Executive Council and a member of the Democratic Party.
Yet life has rarely been harder here, he says. The city is also home to at least 20,000 refugees, 15,000 of them from Kosovo and the rest of them Serbs who fled from Bosnia and Croatia. But the city's annual budget, given the decline of the country's currency and economy, is now only a fourth of what it was in 1997, Mr. Radic says -- the equivalent of $4 million, down from $16 million.
So there is plenty of anger here, in one of the most important towns for Serbia's democratic opposition, some 90 miles south of Belgrade. Here the opposition coalition built in 1996 and called Zajedno, or Together, remains together, unlike that in Belgrade, where the Democratic Party of Zoran Djindjic and the Serbian Renewal Movement of Vuk Draskovic are usually at daggers drawn.
"If it weren't for the opposition leaders in Belgrade, Milosevic would not be in power," Mr. Kovacevic said. "People no longer believe in the people on the stage of those rallies."
Here, about 2,000 people a night gathered to protest the seizure of Studio B in Belgrade, the main opposition television station, while the crowd of protesters in Belgrade itself, 10 times larger in population, had shrunk to fewer than 700.
Part of the problem is that Studio B was perceived as a propaganda organ for Mr. Draskovic, much as state television serves the interests of Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav president, and did not serve as a true public-interest station.
Here, there is a full complement of news, with Radio B2-92, which lost its frequency in Belgrade, available, as well as opposition television news and documentaries. A local FM station broadcasts the Serbian-language programs of Radio Free Europe, Voice of America, the BBC and Deutsche Welle all day long. "People here are well informed," Mr. Vuckovic said.
A local opposition weekly, The Independent Light, said Serbia was "on the razor's edge," but described Belgrade as "deaf, blind and anemic," a pun on the association of independent broadcasters, or ANEM, whose broadcasts can no longer be heard in the capital. But it is also a commentary on the general view of Belgrade from here, which is of well-off, cynical, corrupt politicians and citizens who are largely indifferent to the fate of the nation.
"Belgrade is a great disappointment," Mr. Radic said. "You can't expect to defend Studio B from here. If they dared to take TV Kragujevac, we couldn't avoid a serious conflict." Like Studio B, TV and Radio Kragujevac are owned by the city, which is run by the opposition.
In fact, four years ago, the Serbian authorities tried to seize control of the television here. Up to 50,000 people gathered around the station, which had been occupied by the police. People cut off electrical power to the building and threatened to invade it; a deal was done and the station was left alone.
It would be the same now, Mr. Vuckovic said. "In Serbia, we say that when you show your teeth, the government retreats. But when people are undecided, then they just go faster."
But as everywhere in Serbia there is more talk of revolution than signs of it.
"Here, the situation is highly explosive," Mr. Radic said. "It would only take a spark." Mr. Vuckovic agrees, saying, "It's like a small room full of gas fumes."
But the phlegmatic Dr. Pajevic thinks that the reality is far different.
There is less of a sense of revolution here than of passivity, anxiety and alienation. People are still afraid to lose what little they have left, and they mistrust the desires and capacities of the Belgrade leaders of the opposition.
Dr. Pajevic, the surgeon, says the right analogy is surgical, not military. "We're far from an explosion," he said. "What you have here is anesthesia, anesthesia and hopelessness. There is so much disappointment in the opposition, many people won't even vote."
People live day to day, he said, scraping by on friends and gray market trading. Few pay their electricity bills, but the government does not insist, a form of social pacification. "Our boss plays nice like that," Dr. Pajevic said, laughing. And while the independent newspaper Blic is available here, for eight dinars, "for the same money, people will buy bread and milk for their kids."
Vesna Pajevic, the doctor's wife, is a city official in charge of social welfare issues. A former member of Mr. Draskovic's party, she became disgusted with its hierarchy and joined the Democratic Party instead, which has also disappointed her.
"The credibility of the opposition is dropping even here, where the coalition continues," she said. "There is too much corruption and not enough clear goals and strategies. People need to see that we are working for them."
The biggest mistake of the opposition, Dr. Pajevic said, was to win local elections four years ago and take power. "These guys were practically jobless, and now they've got cars and salaries and cell phones and things to lose," he said. "They've become fat and happy. People wonder if they really do want change. People think that both the regime and the opposition want to keep the status quo."