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Serbia's Youth Seek Good Time Amid the Bad

May 31, 2000|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — The strange thing about a rave party in the police state of Serbia is that Ecstasy is not only easy to find, it's also very cheap.

Just like ravers at clubs throughout Europe and the U.S., the thousands who dance till dawn in Belgrade are often tripping on Ecstasy, which they can buy from dealers at the door as easily as tickets.

Except on the rare occasions when a government-sponsored goon tosses a tear-gas canister onto the dance floor, Serbia's ravers are free to escape the doom and drudgery that are life in Yugoslavia--using any drug that works.

While more and more young Serbs frustrated by the corruption and infighting among opposition leaders are trying to lead a credible challenge to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, the overwhelming majority are retreating within themselves, hoping someone else can save Serbia, the dominant Yugoslav republic.

"Our major philosophy is having a good time and not thinking about the terrible economic situation and all the other difficulties in this country," said Dejan Milicevic, 20, one of three rave deejays who call themselves Teenage Techno Punks.

"We do it only as musicians, not for politics," he added. "The truth is that we're a bit frightened because there aren't a lot of people who know us, so our disappearance wouldn't be noticed. The government doesn't make many concessions."

The rivalry between Serbia's main opposition leaders, Vuk Draskovic and Zoran Djindjic, continues to sap the opposition movement's strength. An estimated 10,000 protesters turned out Saturday at a rally in central Belgrade, capital of both Yugoslavia and Serbia. But organizers had expected at least 100,000 supporters.

Serbian riot police were out in force the previous day as a few thousand supporters of the student-led Otpor, or Resistance, movement rallied peacefully in central Belgrade to protest the government's decision to shut down universities early, apparently to prevent a student strike.

But Serbian police do so little to stop drug dealers that even some of the users are starting to wonder whether Milosevic has secretly concluded that raving on Ecstasy is an excellent opiate of the people.

Milicevic and his fellow Teenage Techno Punks, Milos Pavlovic, 21, and Marko Nastic, 20, have helped raise funds for Serbia's democracy movement. But like most Serbs their age, they are careful not to stick their necks out too far.

"A lot of people our age don't even understand the situation," Milicevic said. "They just accept the facts as they are."

If reality gets too scary, as it often does in what's left of Yugoslavia, about $10 will buy a hit of Ecstasy and a ticket to an all-night rave party on a river barge in Belgrade.

Amid the flicker of strobe lights, on a dance floor filled with as many as 2,000 people, things can start to look up.

"The police allow all these things simply because they want people to be silent," Nastic said.

Gordon Paunovic, a 36-year-old promoter and one of the pioneers of rave parties in Yugoslavia in the early '90s, has asked himself more than once whether he is unwittingly helping Milosevic survive by helping young people turn on and tune out.

But Paunovic can't think of a better way of helping young Serbs satisfy their longing to feel part of the world after a decade of war and sanctions--especially when a foreign act comes to play.

"It's not only about listening to some music, or getting drunk or taking some drugs," Paunovic said. "When you see in front of your eyes--in Belgrade--someone who is really a big name, you are really disconnected from Serbian reality.

"You could be anywhere in the world," he said. "And that's what any Serbian kid wants--not to be here."

It is the abject failure of Serbia's veteran opposition leaders to transform widespread unhappiness with Milosevic into a force strong enough to topple him that has spurred some of the young people who grew up under his rule to try to lead the fight to get rid of him.

The Otpor movement claims to have about 25,000 members, and the official vitriol, thuggish violence and police raids aimed at frightening away more supporters for the student-led movement show how seriously Milosevic takes this latest threat.

But away from the street rallies, and Otpor's brave calls for an uprising, the voices of young Serbs have been more subdued, even as Milosevic has seized the independent radio and TV stations that were their best windows to the outside world.

Yugoslavia's largest independent television and radio stations, Studio B and Radio B2-92, broadcast from a 23-story office tower in central Belgrade until elite anti-terrorist police stormed the building May 17.

Yet from his retreat on the Sava River--where he has a clear view of the building--Milutin Krunic, 21, might as well be a world away.

"It is so close, yet it seems like a switch goes off in my head as soon as I get here," Krunic says. "I don't care about anything else then--and the least about what's going on 200 yards from here."

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