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Wednesday, 3 November, 1999, 17:29 GMT
Belgrade Wonderland
Street protests are doing little to undermine the rule of President Slobodan Milosevic

By Jacky Rowland in Serbia

In Serbia there's petrol tomorrow, petrol yesterday, but never petrol today. Going to a state-run filling station is like stepping through the looking glass for most Serbs.

Petrol is rationed and car owners receive coupons each month allowing them to buy 20 litres at the official price. But there's one slight hitch - there's no petrol for sale.

From surreal petrol to surreal money. The value of the Yugoslav dinar has been plummeting in recent weeks.

People who work for state companies often receive their wages late - so the money's worth less when they get it than it was when they earned it.

The result is creeping inflation - and busy shop assistants who have to keep re-writing price tags.

A monetary coup

Now the government has discovered the reason for its economic woes - foreign agents are planning to stage a monetary coup.

Creeping inflation keeps shop assistants busy
A government minister with steely hair and a steely smile unveiled the Western conspiracy. He revealed that police had seized millions of counterfeit dinars which were destined to destabilise the state.

These were good quality forgeries, he said, and with a flourish he showered the assembled journalists with fake bank notes.

Printed on blue-speckled paper, the counterfeit dinars are unconvincing. The phantom forgers appear to have arrived at a convenient moment for the state.

These experiences are typical of Belgrade today, where everyday life is tinged with unreality.

And the Serbian opposition is not immune to this phenomenon.

A Belgrade Wonderland

Its street protests are doing little to undermine the rule of President Slobodan Milosevic. So instead the opposition has started a pantomime of roundtables and declarations.

With the apparent stagnation of political life in Serbia, many opposition leaders are venturing into a Belgrade Wonderland peopled by assassins, conspirators and secret organisations.

If you want to get ahead, get an assassin, seems to be the watchword among ambitious politicians.

It is apt that the first opposition leader to claim a personal assassin should be Vuk Draskovic, a novelist with a taste for melodrama. Earlier this month he survived a collision between a heavily laden truck and his motorcade, in which four of his close associates were killed.

Assassination attempts

Never one to shun the spotlight, Mr Draskovic denounced the assassin truck as an attempt by the regime to do away with him.

Vuk Draskovic: called a communist and a traitor
As if by magic, a mysterious organisation stepped out of the shadows to claim responsibility for the assassination attempt. The group, calling itself the Serbian Liberation Army, accused Mr Draskovic of being a communist and a traitor.

Its communique was stamped with an official Serbian Liberation Army seal - in true communist tradition.

Sceptical Serbs are not convinced. Many people think the Serbian Liberation Army comes from the same place as the forged dinars.

Mr Draskovic may be the trend setter, but his arch rival, Zoran Djindjic, wants to follow the fashion.

Mr Djindjic claimed that mysterious helicopters had been buzzing overhead, taking pictures of his movements. He too was a desirable target for an assassin - but the plot had been foiled!

A parallel world

The Serbian ruling class also has its parallel world - a Wonderland where membership of the international community is pursued through beauty pageants.

Earlier this month, the Hyatt Hotel in Belgrade played host to the glitzy Miss Yugoslavia 99 contest. A demimonde of gangsters, businessmen and paramilitary leaders turned out to watch the likes of Miss Internet and Miss Body perform politically incorrect hip movements.

International respectability was assured by the presence on the jury of two of my colleagues from the foreign press.

And the winner is...announced the distinguished New York Times correspondent, unfurling the scroll in the best beauty contest tradition. With admirable dexterity, he avoided being kissed by the emotional Miss Yugoslavia.

The whole episode would appear to be a case of mistaken identity. My colleague thought the organiser of the beauty contest was his interpreter's girlfriend. In fact, the lady runs a Belgrade escort agency.

The Hyatt hotel is also emerging as a location for film-makers. Now that the pack of war journalists has departed, a pack of Italian producers and directors is preparing to move in.

The film is called Fatal Passion and the leading actor is a Serbian male model. He plays the role of a gangster who gets killed by his wife's lesbian lover.

In this Serbian Wonderland, Mr Milosevic grins like the Cheshire Cat as Belgrade's financial elite gets richer and the opposition squabbles about assassins.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the looking glass, ordinary people are bracing themselves for a winter of power cuts and shortages.


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See also:
25 Oct 99 |  Kosovo
Losing Kosovo but keeping power: Sloba and Mira
01 Oct 99 |  Europe
Analysis: Can Serbia's opposition unite?

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