''See that building over there,'' the Belgrade resident said, pointing to a gleaming new convention center with a vast, glass roof and mirrored corridors. ''Well,'' he went on, ''the World Bank paid for it and now we have to pay it all back to the World Bank.''
Of course, the World Bank didn't pay for it. The World Bank is much too hard-nosed to do that. It spends its funds on functional development projects like dams and schools, not on plush multimillion dollar international convention centers.
Yet the Belgrade citizen's mistaken conviction that the money for the Sava Center must have come from outside the country sums up a general feeling in austerity-minded Yugoslavia: The country has spent more than it can afford, borrowed a bundle of money from Western banks and international financial institutions, and now must work much harder to pay it back.
A Yugoslav diplomat says: ''We have been living beyond our means.''
Late last month, Yugoslavs, already chafing under a severe belt-tightening campaign to reduce its $20 billion external debt, heard some more untimely news: new taxes, higher rents, and greater curbs on lucrative second jobs.
At least that's the proposal put before the Yugoslav parliament by an official commission of economic experts headed by former state President Sergej Krajger. The measures could be approved by parliament before the end of the year.
The stiffer restrictions will bite even deeper into the pockets of Yugoslavs already faced with either rationing or extreme shortages of basic commodities. The rationing of washing detergent, for instance, led angry housewives this summer to storm a store to obtain boxes of detergent powder.
Even though foreigners are not subjected to such curbs as a monthly gasoline allowance of 44 liters (about 12 gallons), Yugoslavia's economic woes nevertheless impinge on the visitor to Belgrade.
On a recent trip to Yugoslavia this reporter found it virtually impossible to read a newspaper in the hotel dining room. Weak lights above each table are only turned on when the diner sits down. If the dining room is fairly empty, the room looks like a dark cavern. The government is curtailing the use of electrical power as an economy measure.
The first night this reporter entered the dining room, clean white napkins were served. The second night, paper napkins. The third night, strips of toilet paper were cut up and placed on the bread and butter plates.
A Westerner now living in Yugoslavia says some people believe that they're worse off now than they were five years ago, adding, ''My neighbors say they won't be buying any more new clothes because it's too expensive. A new raincoat costs $60 out of a monthly salary of $150.''
The Westerner also muttered that Yugoslavia was getting almost as bad as Poland. ''Sugar is hard to find. Cooking oil is very hard to find. And there are great shortages of meat. Most people are eating sausages, a very fatty diet,'' she comments.
The analogy to Poland does crop up from to time. Yugoslavia $20 billion debt is not all that much below Poland's debt, which is put at around $27 billion. But economic experts involved in rescuing Yugoslavia financially tend to think the comparison ends there.
An informed source familiar with both countries says: ''At least Yugoslavia's economic planners know what they are doing. That's more than can be said for Poland's.''
More important, Yugoslavia, unlike many of the other major debtor countries, has refused to reschedule its debt payments. The attitude of the Yugoslavs is that rescheduling debt merely postpones the problem.
Yugoslavia's determination to tough it out has won it the approval of Western commercial banks, Western governments, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). They have agreed on a $6.5 billion package of extended credits to help bail out Yugoslavia.
Although Yugoslavia still has a balance of payments deficit, it has made sizable inroads in that area: It has cut its balance of payments deficit from $3 .7 billion in 1979 down to $1.4 billion in 1982. While exports remain firm - up from $6.8 billion in 1979 to $10.2 billion in 1982 - inflation stands at a worrisome 30 to 35 percent rate.
While Yugoslavia appears to have the will to accept disciplinary measures, the Organization for Economic Coopera-tion and Development (OECD) has expressed concern that IMF austerity measures might be too stringent.
The OECD says there is ''a risk that the monetary and public expenditure targets will impose a greater reduction of real domestic demand and disruption to the economy than is necessary.''
Put another way, that means the OECD is voicing a complaint made by other troubled debtor nations that the disciplinary steps advocated by the IMF to get a country out of its economic mess sometimes impose tremendous social and political strains on a nation.