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Fuel Shortage Could Be Serbs' Achilles' Heel : Embargo: U.N. sanctions have failed to crush an isolated republic. But lack of transportation grates on citizens.


BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — Czech beer and Italian handbags and luxurious foreign vacations are still readily available here at bargain-basement prices.

While U.N. sanctions imposed 10 months ago have worsened the longstanding economic crisis for what remains of Yugoslavia, they have failed in their objective of breaking Yugoslav Serbs' support for Serbian rebellions in nearby countries by isolating and depriving the Serbs.

Only one vital commodity--oil--is increasingly scarce in the rump Yugoslavia--the republics of Serbia and Montenegro. Some economic analysts believe the hardship inflicted by the fuel deficit offers the sole hope that sanctions may one day be successful.

Belgrade streets have less than half the volume of traffic they carried a year ago; highways and rural roads are virtually abandoned. Heating fuel was scarce this past winter, forcing many families to rely on electric space heaters that sent their power bills soaring. Due to a huge shortage of diesel fuel for farm equipment, Serbian peasants this spring are planting by hand and sowing only a fraction of their fields.

"Fuel may very well be the Achilles' heel of Serbia," said a Western economics attache who has lived in Belgrade for three years. "People have had to give up their cars and take crowded and unreliable public transportation. This grates on the average Serb as much as it would on an American."

Both Yugoslav and Serbian authorities refuse to discuss the country's energy supplies, deeming such information a matter of national security. But evidence of scarcity is mounting, and an undertone of panic has crept into official economic forecasts, including a recent warning that food may soon be woefully short.

In an announcement that ration coupons are being printed, the state-run news agency Tanjug blamed a diesel fuel shortfall of 150,000 tons for "considerably reducing" planting this spring. The threat of a poor harvest followed by a heatless winter remains months away. But the oil embargo's damage to urban lifestyles is already painfully apparent.

Few Yugoslavs can still afford to buy gasoline, now available to private citizens only from smugglers. Last summer's long lines at filling stations have disappeared because the state-run Jugopetrol enterprise no longer supplies average consumers.

Wheezing buses and streetcars, packed to capacity throughout the workday, run less often, despite mounting demand. Train services have also been reduced against a rising passenger tide, suggesting that authorities are having trouble providing even a Third World standard of service.

"We have a car, but we can't drive it because there is no gas," lamented Vladislava Glisic, 31, an accountant forced by the economic crisis to take a job as a salesclerk. "We have had to give up everything because of the crisis, even the right to travel to work like civilized human beings."

Like most of her fellow citizens, Glisic blames U.N. sanctions for stripping her lifestyle to bare existence. But amid the hardships closing in on them, better-educated Serbs have begun to express distaste for the conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina that rage on at the price of their own prosperity. "Maybe it's not worth fighting for," Glisic said of the Belgrade-inspired goal of creating a Greater Serbia. "Our sacrificing under the sanctions might help, but what if this is all for nothing?"

Serbs and Montenegrins will probably persevere through another summer of not driving and an autumn harvest far below usual because of fuel shortages, Western diplomats predict. But they expect that by year's end, Yugoslavs may tire of gritting their teeth and be forced by the oil embargo to contemplate the message its imposition was intended to send.

Serbia produces only about 25% of its oil needs; even rampant smuggling brings in no more than another 10%, diplomats calculate.

Serbia's strategic energy reserves are a closely guarded secret and may be capable of supplying the army for as long as another two years. But they too could be depleted by stricter enforcement of the oil embargo, accelerating what some observers believe to be an inevitable breaking of Serbian will to defy the world.

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