As the Yugoslav army completes its withdrawal from Kosovo, and tens of thousands of Serbian refugees stream northward, the predominant mood in the rest of Serbia is a mixture of exhaustion, concern about the future, and a mistrust of all politicians, from Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to the leaders of pro-Western opposition parties.
Just weeks after Serbian cities were gripped by an outpouring of popular rage at the NATO bombing campaign, public opinion seems to be turning inward. Serbs are waking up to the reality of life in an economically devastated country that has just suffered one of the most serious defeats in its history.
People here differ about who is responsible for the mess that they now find themselves in, with some pointing their fingers at Milosevic and others talking about the perfidy of the United States and other Western countries that were allied with Serbia in two world wars. But the common theme, among both civilians and returning soldiers alike, is a preoccupation with personal problems and despair about anything changing for the better in the near future.
"People are sick and tired of everything. We have lived like animals for the last 10 years, and we don't know what to do," said Tamara Mirsilic, 23, an economics student sitting on a park bench in the southern Serbian city of Nis. "We have lost the power to change things. Without a revolution, or some kind of military coup, nothing good will happen here."
"I am done with politics and war," said a 20-year-old conscript named Nenad, who has spent the last six months in Kosovo and narrowly escaped death in a NATO cluster-bomb attack on his unit. "I just want to turn in my uniform and enjoy the fact that I am alive. It was a stupid, pointless war."
The energy that galvanized Serbs during the early weeks of the war, and during a street uprising against Milosevic in the winter of 1996-97 provoked by the rigging of local elections, has dissipated into a struggle for personal survival. NATO bombs hit many of the country's main industrial plants, and tens of thousands of Serbs were left without jobs. With everybody predicting major disruption in electricity and heating supplies in the coming winter, the hottest item on the market right now is a wood stove.
Western governments have said they will refuse to contribute to Serbia's economic reconstruction if Milosevic remains in power. But without a significant infusion of Western aid money, it is difficult to see how the country's basic infrastructure can be repaired. And that in turn has raised fears of an economic crisis comparable to the winter of 1993, when international sanctions and hyperinflation left ordinary Serbs scrounging for basic necessities.
"Organizing life in these conditions exhausts you to such an extent that you don't have energy for anything else -- or any time for politics," said Roksanda Nincic, a journalist with the opposition newsmagazine Vreme.
Economic problems abound. "If we don't get any help from abroad, I expect a horror story here this winter," says Nis Mayor Zoran Zivkovic, a leader of the pro-Western Democratic Party. According to Zivkovic, NATO attacks on a switching station have cut electric power production in southern Serbia by 70 percent. While there is just about enough electricity to meet consumer demand during the summer months, with most factories closed, the power grid is likely to break down as soon as cold weather arrives.
The accumulation of economic difficulties -- combined with the influx of refugees from Kosovo and the loss of control over a province seen by most Serbs as the cradle of their civilization -- has caused many analysts to ask how long Milosevic can hang on to power. As a leader who owed his rise to power 10 years ago to his promise to defend the rights of the Serbian minority in Kosovo, he now faces the task of explaining away the total collapse of his policies.
"He is in grave trouble. This is the beginning of the end for Milosevic," said Aleksa Djilas, an independent political analyst in Belgrade and son of the late Yugoslav dissident, Milovan Djilas. "In Kosovo, he is a total loser. He is a typical non-statesman who, instead of making moderate concessions when he is strong, is forced to make huge concessions when he is weak. All this is becoming more and more obvious to the Serbs."
Predictions of Milosevic's imminent demise have circulated for years, however, and so far he has found a way of outmaneuvering his political opponents. By conventional measures of statesmanship, his record has been abysmal. His decade in power has witnessed the international isolation of his country, the loss of Serbian-occupied lands in Croatia, Bosnia and now Kosovo, and plummetting standards of living for ordinary Serbs. But he has displayed a genius for hanging onto political power, and it is too soon to count him out.
Given the present state of public opinion, it is difficult to see how Milosevic can win another remotely democratic election.
During the last Serbian parliamentary election in 1997, his Socialist Party was able to pick up more than 20 seats by stuffing ballot boxes in Kosovo, a ploy made possible by the ethnic Albanian majority's boycott of the polls. If the Kosovo seats were excluded, the Socialists would have finished second to the extreme nationalist Serbian Radical Party led by Vojislav Seselj.
Even if Djilas is right, the end could be a long time in coming. Milosevic's mandate as president of Yugoslavia, a two-nation federation that includes Serbia and its smaller sister republic of Montenegro, does not expire until 2002. Parliamentary elections in Serbia do not have to be held until 2001.
CAPTION: Some Serbs fault Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic; others the West. Most now distrust all politicians.