BELGRADE — SITTING in the noisy, smoke-choked cafe of Belgrade University's Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Nenad Jovic rues the hardships of Serbia's hyperinflated economic cataclysm.
``I came to a masquerade party here, and it cost three German marks [US$l.80] to get in. My father's salary is 10 marks a month. Can you imagine? I spent one-third of his salary!'' exclaims the 19-year-old freshman.
``If you don't have money, you don't have anything,'' he says.
Mr. Jovic dreams of being a top-flight computer engineer. But he knows such heights are no longer attainable in his homeland, with no end in sight to war-fed joblessness, penury, and instability. ``I will have to leave Serbia to find a job because I cannot work for five marks a month. I don't see any future,'' he says.
That same conclusion has led hundreds of thousands of Yugoslavs to emigrate, sapping the rump Yugoslav union of Serbia and Montenegro of its best and brightest.
Lured by promises of a better life, more and more of Serbia's world-class minds and their prots in physics, mathematics, electronics, chemistry, and engineering have left or are leaving.
Though such emigration has been going on for decades, the pace of the ``brain drain'' has reached crisis proportions.
The consequences are being contemplated with alarm because those departing are critical to the massive effort that will eventually be required to rebuild this country's devastated scientific and industrial potentials to world-competitive levels.
According to incomplete data compiled by Vladimir Grecic of the Institute of International Politics and Economics, 828 scientists, researchers, physicians, and engineers have left in the last 14 years, almost 60 percent since the Yugoslav crisis erupted in 1990.
Almost a quarter of the total left in 1992 alone, including 181 holders of doctorates of science and 156 masters of science, devastating numbers for a developing state of 10 million struggling to shed almost 50 years of communism.
More than 60 percent were below the age of 40, Dr. Grecic says. Most have gone to the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.
``The people we are seeing are very often people who would not ordinarily want to emigrate. They are people who have established careers here,'' says Brian Casey of the Canadian Embassy's consular section.
``It is an economic decision, but much also has to do with perceptions of the future and the future of their families,'' he says.
Canada is actively tapping rump Yugoslavia's pool of expertise as part of a high-tech talent hunt intended to give it an internationally competitive edge in the 21st century, Mr. Casey says. ``Yugoslavs can compete just about anywhere.''
``Economic factors are most important, but if you compare this with other Eastern European countries, we have two additional factors,'' Grecic says, explaining the exodus. ``One is the civil war. Many people think it is better to go than to face civil war for years,'' he says.
The second factor, he continues, are the United Nations sanctions imposed in May 1992 for Belgrade's backing of the Bosnian Serb land-grab.
The sanctions accelerated the economic collapse that began in the 1980s and grew with the disintegration of former Yugoslavia and Belgrade's underwriting of the Bosnian Serbs' conquests and the 1991 rebellion by their ethnic brethren in Croatia.
The resulting bankruptcy, monetary collapse, and record hyperinflation have left the state barely able to provide bread, let alone fund research institutes and centers of higher learning.
University professors now earn less than $10 per month, while top-level researchers make about $120.
Many are now partially paid with food and soap instead of worthless dinars.
Moreover, bans mandated by the sanctions on scientific and cultural exchanges have hampered scientists, doctors, and students from keeping up with the latest advances in their fields, says Federal Science Minister Milan Dimitrijevic.
``To pursue science, you must have journals and equipment,'' he says. ``You must have resources to travel to international conferences.''
The losses are not just in knowledge and expertise, says Vlastimir Matejic, the director of the Mihajlo Pupin Institute, the country's foremost center for information technologies. ``Everyone who leaves takes with him about 20 to 25 years of education,'' Dr. Matejic says.
Furthermore, he says, ``the flow of products and services on the international level is becoming more technology-dependent. A country that relies only on its natural resources definitely will have a much worse competitive position.
``We will have problems not only in generating new knowledge and new technologies, but in dealing with new knowledge and new technologies,'' he continues.
``If you take all of that, my calculation is that this country has lost for the next 20 to 30 years the equivalent of about $30 billion,'' Matejic says.
There are other implications for society as a whole, he adds.
``Research and development personnel belong to the elite of a nation,'' Matejic explains. ``Once you decrease the quantity of the elite, you decrease the quality of the elite. Therefore, the cultural and social values, the way you look at development as a problem, are changed very much indeed.
``If you want to have a democracy, you have to have an elite,'' he concludes.
Matejic knows the practical consequences of the brain drain.
In the last two years, his institute has lost 135 of its 320-strong research contingent. Most have gone to Canada, where they have settled in self-supporting communities.
``Once you have been brain-drained, you don't come back,'' he says. ``Your children have new roots, and after a certain age, you live for your children, not for yourself.''