VIENNA — FOR many years, Belgrade was a consumer's El Dorado for Russians and East Europeans.
In the 1960s and '70s, Western-aided but Communist-run Belgrade was getting its first department stores with abundant ready-to-wear suits, shirts, pajamas, dresses, Western cosmetics, and electronics in quality and variety absolutely unknown behind the Iron Curtain.
One watched Russian tourist groups arriving, all toting obviously empty suitcases. Days later they would stagger away, their suitcases crammed full. Yugoslavs themselves never had it so good. The dinar was respectable.
Today, it is worthless. There are no tourists - from West or East - and the stores have sadly depleted stocks among which impoverished Yugoslavs search for cheap necessities. City markets once awash with excellent meat, fruit, and vegetables are bare. Now good food is available only on the black market; with half the work force unemployed and the average monthly wage worth only $30, few can afford to buy.
In the late '70s, a World Bank team (of which this writer was a member) was amazed by how many small farmers had a Western tractor and a Fiat side by side in their barns.
But two years of war have created a bizarre economy, and both agriculture and industry are in decline. Even worse, food and power shortages are inevitable this winter. When the authorities recently proposed ensuring minimal basic food needs by rationing and freezing prices, the farmers simply refused to sell at state prices and stashed their grain away until the government relented.
In an equally futile move to meet the domestic power needs, city dwellers were told to use coal. But there simply is not enough. Too many coal pits are idle.
The astonishing thing is how many Serbs - despite their wretched lives - still tolerate Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and his war for the sake of that centuries-old surrealist myth of ``Greater Serbia.'' They still regard themselves as ``encircled'' by an unjustly hostile international community that singles them out for punishment through sanctions.
The grumbling is not targeted at Mr. Milosevic and his policies. Maybe, alas, they see no alternative.
Some challenge to his rule seemed to take shape in the summer. Public discontent was rising. Yet, after a 10-day, name-calling, ``confidence'' debate in the Serb Assembly, Milosevic adroitly turned the tables on his main opponents - the extremist Serbian Radical Party - by dissolving parliament and announcing elections for Dec. 18. His total grip on television, the police, and a pampered Army is unimpaired. Diplomats in Belgrade believe an election win for his Socialist Party is assured. But it will be a sterile victory, unless in the meantime Milosevic is seen to make genuine concessions for peace.
The elections seem likely to be no more ``free and fair'' than the Russian elections, also in December. But Russian President Boris Yeltsin has shown himself amenable to Western opinion on how democracy should work and it is reasonable to believe his lingering restrictions on dissent will be removed.
Whether Milosevic (who is begging the West to ease sanctions) will relax the same way is open to grave doubt. If he does not, sanctions will remain and much worse, the massive foreign capital that alone can save Serbia from collapse will be even further off, probably fatally.