BELGRADE has a new social phenomenon: gas lines. They stretch for several miles, snaking up hills and round corners. Cars' owners leave them late at night and return early in the morning to wipe off the dew, reclaim their places, and hope that day to make it to the front of the line. Once there, however, they can only claim a monthly ration of 20 liters of gas.
"It appears people for the first time are beginning to blame [Serbian President Slobodan] Milosevic for Serbia's isolation and the war," one Western diplomat said. "Having to wait in line for gas is a real hardship."
He said that Yugoslav Prime Minister Milan Panic - a wealthy US businessman and Yugoslav expatriate who was set up in the post by Mr. Milosevic - "is increasingly seen as the only figure who may be able to pull Serbia out of the hole Milosevic has dug it into."
The gas lines have grown so long only in recent days after Greece, Romania, and other countries complied with pressure from the United Nations and closed their borders to gas tankers which had ignored the sanctions against Serbia.
The lines have heightened apprehension about the likely hardships of the coming winter under UN sanctions. Few people know how they will be able to heat their homes this winter without oil. Food prices are spiraling beyond the reach of the average purse. Factories are closing down because of a lack of raw materials, energy, and export markets.
"Sanctions are definitely beginning to bite hard on the average Serb. I think Serbs understand that the future for Serbia is disaster unless they can re-enter the international community. Panic has communicated that in clear, understandable terms," a Western diplomat said.
"I voted for Milosevic, but I wouldn't do it again," said one wary young man in a gas line.
It is difficult for outsiders to grasp just how shocking Milosevic's slipping popularity is. The reclusive dictator - frequently described as the evil genius behind the nationalist wars in Croatia and Bosnia - came to power on a wave of support in 1988. His nationalist speeches drew tens of thousands of listeners. Throughout the wars in Croatia and Bosnia, the early months of sanctions, and a drop in real income of hundreds of percent, his popularity has continued, particularly in the countryside.
"What is shaping up," said another Western diplomat, "is a public fight between Milosevic and Mr. Panic. Milosevic will probably try to tar Panic with the blame for not getting sanctions lifted and Serbia's woes. But Panic has fired up the public imagination and he [Milosevic] may not be able to succeed."
Milosevic has already begun: Belgrade television - controlled by Milosevic and widely seen as Milosevic's personal propaganda machine - began broadcasting vicious attacks on Panic. They have not relented.
Panic, too, has already distressed Milosevic by publicly disavowing Serbia's war-mongering policies, by firing Vladislav Jovanovic, the former Serb and Yugoslav foreign minister who openly referred to Panic as "the court jester," and by seizing control of printing presses which had been fueling inflation by recklessly printing money.
Earlier this month Panic survived a vote of no-confidence in the Yugoslav parliament, which is packed with Milosevic supporters. "Although Milosevic did not publicly associate himself with the no-confidence motion, it was widely seen as a Milosevic warning to Panic," said the Western diplomat.
The arena for the Panic-Milosevic fight will likely be November's elections for the Serb and the Yugoslav parliaments. But the diplomat pointed out that despite Panic's popularity, he has no party behind him and no domestic political base. By contrast Milosevic has the well-organized machine of the Socialist - formerly Communist - Party behind him. He also has Belgrade television which provides most people's news. "He has got out of tight spots before. There is no guarantee that he is finished," a season ed Western observer said.
MILOSEVIC had promised he would not run again for president of Serbia. But there is speculation he is positioning himself to become president or prime minister of the rump Yugoslavia that consists of Serbia and Montenegro.
He is likely to use Belgrade television to drum up support. Opposition parties complain that if they have as little air time as in the past, they will not be able to make a significant showing in the elections. Milosevic has a further problem in the shape of almost half a million Bosnian Serb refugees. If they are given citizenship and voting rights - something now being debated - they could show their anger at him by voting instead for right-wing nationalist politician Vojislav Seselj, the main proponen t of ethnic cleansing. If Mr. Seselj came to power, it could trigger nationalist fighting within Serbia.
But for now, the gas lines have given ordinary people here plenty to think about - and a forum to discuss it. They serve as Belgrade's social life. Mothers take children for picnic suppers in the cars to keep fathers company. Passionate card games are played. Street hamburger vendors are doing a brisk business. And drivers are forming groups and talking the hours and days away.