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Apathy Reigns As Living Standards Plunge With AM-Yugoslavia, Bjt

July 31, 1993

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ A new kind of shopper has started coming to Belgrade’s farmers’ markets: middle-class citizens meandering who sample slivers of cheese or morsels of produce, but never buy anything.

″I understood what was going on when a retired teacher told me she could not afford to buy food anymore and that this was her only real meal of the day,″ said Milovan Gavric, a salesman at the central Skadarlija open market.

Signs of plunging living standards abound: groups of elderly citizens rummage through garbage cans or wait behind butchers’ shops for bones.

Supermarket cashiers tell of shoppers appearing at their registers with food which, they politely explain, they are unable to pay for. One man simply said: ″My children are hungry,″ and left his name and address to prove he is not a thief.

U.N. economic sanctions, imposed 14 months ago to punish Serbia-dominated Yugoslavia for inciting the war in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina, have almost destroyed the economy.

U.N. officials say the sanctions are the most ruinous ever imposed by the world body. And though prospects of peace improved marginally in Bosnia with tentative agreement on a settlement, there is no immediate prospect of the sanctions being lifted.

Still Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, the intended target of the sanctions, hangs on. He has proclaimed the embargo a challenge and a chance to streamline the economy.

Much of Milosevic’s public optimism is clearly an attempt to line up public opinion behind him. But his insouciance has prompted some observers to question whether the Serbian leader has lost touch with reality.

″Milosevic truly believes in his fantasies (and has) created an alternative reality in his mind,″ wrote Belgrade’s Borba daily newspaper.

To preempt possible outbreaks of unrest, Milosevic has created a huge police force of 70,000 men, equipped with tanks, artillery and helicopters.

But force has been needed rarely and only briefly - the last time June 1, when riot police clashed with anti-Milosevic demonstrators, arresting and beating key opposition leader Vuk Draskovic to demonstrate their resolve.

Fear and stoic resignation have kept most people off the street despite the increasing poverty.

″Life is great - we are all on the verge of tears,″ Milivoje Stanic, a farmer from Ljig, 60 miles south of Belgrade, commented sarcastically.

Most people uncritically accept the government’s propaganda message that sacrifices must be made to save Bosnian and Croatian Serbs from ″genocide″ in those republics.

However, some leaders of Milosevic’s ruling Socialist Party - the renamed Communists - have warned of impending disaster.

″The economy of Belgrade, which accounts for a third of Serbia’s potential, will completely collapse within several months,″ declared Nebojsa Covic, the capital’s senior Socialist Party official.

Even the official trade unions, which have so far avoided any industrial action, have called a general strike for Aug. 5. saying their members are ″barely surviving.″

Industrial production has been halved, and nearly 50 percent of the work force is idled, most of them on long-term ″compulsory leave.″

Inflation is surging ahead - 22,742 percent over the past year. If it continues increasing at this rate, it will top 1 billion percent at the end of 1993, officials say.

″Three quarters of our members are literally starving,″ said Stojan Jankovic, head of the pensioners’ organization in the southern city of Nis. He said July pensions averaged 67 million dinars - enough to buy only about 3 pounds of pork.