At the end of the Kosovo war last month, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic stood beneath a banner proclaiming "New Bridges for a New Century" and vowed that a crucial highway bridge over the Danube River damaged by NATO airstrikes would be mended within 40 days.
At a ribbon-cutting ceremony here scheduled for this morning, Milosevic will make good on his promise -- four days ahead of schedule.
But the repair of the Beska Bridge southeast of the city of Novi Sad was a rushed job in a country that is dead broke and cutting corners as it confronts the task of fixing at least 46 other bridges, railroad trestles and overpasses downed and damaged by NATO airstrikes -- as well as dozens of factories, power plants, heating stations, radio and television transmitters, water and sewage facilities, and government buildings.
The engineer who oversaw the hurried Beska Bridge repair, Milovan Krstajic, acknowledges he has no idea how long the span will hold up. "Sometime in the future, there is the possibility of the soil beneath the new section sinking," he said. For now, he added, "it is safe."
Milosevic, who is facing popular calls for his removal from office, will clearly get a political boost from reopening the bridge, but Serbia -- Yugoslavia's dominant republic -- has barely begun its long road back to economic recovery. The total price tag from 78 days of NATO airstrikes is about $10 billion in property damage alone, according to preliminary estimates, and the United States and its Western allies have vowed that Serbia will not receive a penny of aid as long as Milosevic remains in power. Kosovo, a province of Serbia, and Montenegro, its smaller, disaffected partner in the Yugoslav republic, will benefit from Western assistance.
No country, with the exception of cash-starved Russia, a centuries old patron of the Serbs, is promising money for reconstruction here, and Belgrade government officials acknowledge that they are not counting on the Russians for much help.
For now, the government, and almost everybody else here, is in arrears. People stopped paying their taxes and utility bills months ago. The reality is that Serbia does not have the materials or the money -- or the ability to borrow the money -- to rebuild itself.
Independent economists are not sure how Serbia or Yugoslavia continue to function. But of this they are certain: "We're broke," said Goran Pitic, a research director at the Economics Institute in Belgrade. "How broke is a matter of some speculation."
This is a land worn down by four lost wars since 1991, punishing international economic sanctions and, earlier this decade, some of the most staggering hyperinflation ever recorded, when the treasury began to print notes in denominations of 5,000,000,000 dinars. Now those bills can be found in the gutter. They are worthless.
Salaries -- when workers are paid, that is, and even a Belgrade surgeon complains that his wages are three months overdue -- are plummeting. The average monthly income is now $48 a month. Unemployment is nearing 50 percent. And some days it seems that everyone with a diploma is looking for a visa to join a national exodus of highly-trained and educated Serbs.
More than a third of the gross national product is assumed to be conducted on the black and gray markets, and large segments of the population make do mostly by bartering goods and services. Nobody keeps money in banks. When account holders try to withdraw the equivalent of $20, they are routinely told to come back later; the banks don't have that much money in their drawers.
The size of the federal reserve is one of the most closely guarded secrets in the country -- and there is widespread speculation that sometime soon the national bank will start to print more bank notes, a move that could touch off another round of hyperinflation. The black-market exchange rate for dollars or German marks is about double the official rate.
In one of his few efforts to boost national morale since the war ended, Milosevic traveled to Beska on June 14 to promise that the bridge, which links the country's main north-south highway, would be repaired.
"Let me tell you a secret," he told the crowd. "Of course, it is not possible to complete this work in 40 days, but it is possible because even while the bombs were falling, the builders were secretly preparing elements that will be built into this bridge. They prepared to start traffic as soon as possible once peace comes, and I congratulate them on that."
Krstajic, the general director of the company that built the bridge in the late 1970s and rebuilt the damaged section this summer, pulled up onto the middle of the bridge on Sunday in a big Mercedes Benz and described the project.
"There was big pressure to finish in a shorter time," he said. "But we could not do that. I am convinced that no one could have done it faster." He said that work actually began four days after Milosevic announced the reconstruction, not in secret weeks earlier.
NATO bombers severed the bridge where it joins the north bank of the Danube in a precise strike that appeared designed to cut off access to the bridge, not destroy it.
Krstajic and his workers simply pushed dirt into the bomb crater, erected a pylon on a foundation they dug into the marshy underlying soil and then laid in a new span section. The bridge, with freshly painted orange and gray railings, is now officially 40 meters shorter.
On Sunday, repair crews were still feverishly working to complete it in time for this morning's official opening. With a compressor and spray gun, Dusan Borojevic painted away in a high wind. His entire body was covered in orange paint, from his toeless sandals to his stubbled beard, mustache and hair. He worked without a mask and answered a few questions as he drank a beer and smoked a cigarette.
"This is important to all of us," he said. "That is why we work. That, and the money."
Jasna Matic, a civil engineer who helped compile a report by Group 17, an economic study group, stressed that the downed bridges were a humanitarian as well as economic disaster. She spoke of all the school children, for example, who will soon have to commute to their classes on a barge across the Danube at Novi Said, herded together like cattle, because of the three downed bridges in the city, Yugoslavia's second-largest.
Matic and other engineers guessed that without help from the West it would take the three or four Yugoslav construction companies three years to rebuild the bridges -- if they had the money and materials, which they do not. Milosevic has announced new taxes and surcharges to pay for reconstruction, although it's unclear how much revenue the levies will generate.
"I'm depressed," Matic said. "I'll be honest with you. Nothing is going to happen. One bridge. Two bridges. And that is it. We're dying."
The one hopeful expectation here is that some European nations -- such as Germany and Austria, which normally ship a combined 60 million tons of goods down the Danube through Serbia -- will find a way to negotiate a deal with the Milosevic government whereby they will be permitted to clear the Danube of wartime debris blocking shipping in exchange for rebuilding some bridges.
Several senior Milosevic officials confirm that such a scenario is possible -- that the government will hold off on clearing the Danube until the West helps rebuild some bridges.
In fact, the same engineering firm that patched up the Beska Bridge has been contracted to erect a pontoon bridge across the Danube at Novi Sad. That bridge, scheduled to be in place by September, will allow city residents to move back and forth across the river but will block the Danube to freight traffic moving between Western Europe and the Black Sea.
The message is clear: If the West wants to move its products again down one of the longest and most important rivers in Europe, they must help the Serbs rebuild some proper bridges.