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Next Step : Fascism Stirs Amid the Ruins of War in Serbia : A future of poverty and repression is the hopeful outlook. The darker one is of the anarchic combat depicted in the futuristic film 'Road Warrior.'

August 25, 1992|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — Critics of the Yugoslav war that has torn Serbia along with the other former republics warn that jobless city dwellers could be forced to burn furniture and books to heat their homes this winter.

If the war is pronounced a victory for Serbia, they say, or even if it just burrows into relative slumber during the cold-weather months, armed criminal gangs freed from the front lines will control the markets for precious commodities such as gasoline, sugar and medicines, as a reward for loyal service in the deadly construction of Greater Serbia.

Those fearful of what lies ahead--Western diplomats here as well as opposition forces and a minority of Serbian intellectuals--worry that borders could be closed to those with Yugoslav or Serbian passports, with the intent of fencing them in to suffer the role of international pariahs. The Western world has already partially isolated the Belgrade leadership it accuses of aggression, by cutting air connections, banning trade and imposing new visa restrictions on visiting Yugoslavs.

Public gatherings and night life are likely to be banned to deter social unrest, say these analysts, who see the stirrings of a fascist society amid the ruins of war. They fear critics of the regime are sure to be arrested, perhaps even shot.

Crippled industries already function only symbolically and are being run by those deemed politically reliable by virtue of their support for the party in power.

Among the horrifying vistas opening up before Yugoslavia's ostracized Serbs, Western diplomats and Serbia's decimated intelligentsia say an environment of poverty and repression is the best they can expect.

Most residents of what is left of Yugoslavia--Serbia and Montenegro--cling to faint hopes that they will somehow be rescued and restored to the relative affluence they enjoyed before the war started.

"This will all be over soon, and conditions will be back to normal by autumn," insists Natasha Markovic, a young clerk at a Belgrade video-rental store, parroting the official line beamed out nightly on state-run TV. She sees the fall in her monthly income from nearly $2,000 two years ago to less than $50 this month as a temporary consequence of misguided sanctions against her country.

"I'm not interested in politics," is the evasive reply of many Serbs when they are asked what conditions they expect to emerge from the current crisis.

But those who have broken out of the mesmerizing propaganda spell that grips this capital city envision a much more terrifying future. They warn of a society of rival armed forces waging widespread urban warfare with sophisticated weapons and medieval hate.

Belgrade-based diplomats and the thin ranks of the anti-war movement agree that Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic is on the verge of achieving his dream of a Greater Serbia.

Milosevic and his Serbian Socialist Party, however, have steadfastly denied that the Serbian republic is even at war. They have distanced themselves from the Balkan bloodshed and cast the fighting as a valiant defense by Serbs in other republics against perceived threats of genocide and Muslim fundamentalism.

European and other industrialized nations, currently outraged by the carnage in Bosnia-Herzegovina that they blame mostly on Serbs, have been weighing intervention options against the expected costs in money, time and casualties.

But none of the possible scenarios, which range from full-scale military invasion to a pullout, will alter the likelihood that the Balkan Peninsula's 10 million Serbs face decades of privation.

"We already have here a semi-criminal, semi-mob kind of political life," says Predrag Simic, a Serbian intellectual who heads Belgrade's Institute of International Politics and Economics. "The way you now become a 'good Serb' is to 'liberate' Croatian and Muslim belongings."

Milos Vasic, a respected Serbian military analyst who has steered clear of the nationalist fever, denounces Milosevic for "encouraging fascists" and warns that the near-term future can only bring worse conditions.

"If Milosevic wins any acceptance of the current state of Yugoslavia, we will have an aggressive, totalitarian regime in Serbia for the next 50 years," says Vasic. Nevertheless, he forecasts eventual Western recognition of the new Yugoslavia as foreign governments come to the conclusion that accepting the status quo achieved by force is preferable to getting more deeply involved.

What Serbs have won with their war, observes Vasic, "is a lot of poor and devastated territory with borders too long to defend . . . a Greater Serbia in which Serbs have successfully killed off their own sources of income." Soon, he adds, "we won't be able to feed our own people, never mind Serbs in Croatia and in Bosnia-Herzegovina."

Serbian forces have seized one-third of Croatia and nearly three-quarters of Bosnia-Herzegovina, but most of those spoils are the poorest and least productive regions of the occupied republics.

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