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Serb hard-liners look to new strains of nationalist communism to the east, as liberals lose faith in the West

AS this ancient and cosmopolitan city enters its 16th month at war, the world seems far away. While food and goods from Europe are still plentiful, the international embargo is a constant reminder that Serbia is isolated.

News is scant and slanted. Most Serbs still believe the war in Bosnia was started by Muslims. Every evening brings more TV accounts of "mujahideen attackers" from Sarajevo. Nothing is heard here of ethnic cleansing or the newly reported mass raping and incarceration of pregnant Muslim women by Serbian soldiers in Bosnia. The only outsiders in Belgrade are journalists and United Nations officials. UN talks in Geneva seem to take place in another world.

Internally, Belgrade is in chaos. The upcoming elections show the vulnerability of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who trails Serbian-born American millionaire Milan Panic by one percentage point in the polls. The war, the endless printing of money, the social tensions, and the propaganda lead to a widely shared feeling here that Mr. Milosevic no longer has a strategy; he is making it up, often brilliantly, as he goes along.

Out of this chaos, two basic positions on the West have emerged. The hard-line nationalists who favor a "Greater Serbia" demonize the West as "conspirators against Serbs." Belgrade liberals, on the other hand, say the West has failed Serbs - morally and practically - by a policy of inaction in the face of evil.

The liberals' faith in Western ideals and their own political leverage in Belgrade has been undercut by the West's neutrality. They see the UN "passing resolutions, and doing nothing about them," as one said, citing the failed August decision at the London Conference to remove Serbian heavy guns from Sarajevo, and the unenforced UN "no fly zone" over Bosnia.

"I used to think the West had a secret plan, and during the ethnic cleansing, [I] waited to see what it was. But I've seen nothing," says a professor of law and human rights, who requested anonymity. "We are forced to conclude that the West only cares about human rights in the West; we think the tent of Europe is not really so big. No real standards are brought to our case." Foreign intervention, many say, is now too late.

As for the hard-liners, sources close to one circle of nationalist leaders say they have two positions. Publicly, for months, they have created the impression the West - led by Germany, Austria, the Vatican, and lately the United States - is about to attack Serbia militarily. Privately, they have ceased to be interested in what the West is doing. Rather, Milosevic is looking to Russia, to nationalist movements in Moscow. He is eager for the overthrow of Boris Yelstin, and wants to form a new Slavic milit ary alliance.

Milosevic has received some encouragement. Russian Patriotic Front Party official Eduard Limonov publicly told Milosevic he should receive nuclear weapons from the Russian military. The seal of the Patriotic Front shows two flags intertwined - the communist and the czarist. Milosevic is said to be impressed with this powerful new combination of nationalist sensibility and communism.

Still, as one young Serb put it, the average person in Belgrade has begun to wonder if Serbia's actions in the world have not gone too far. A student just back from an internship in Holland was "shocked" to find so many dirty looks when people found out his nationality. As a Serb journalist put it, "People here are beginning to worry that maybe we did something wrong in Bosnia. Maybe we messed things up. Maybe we aren't the faultless celestial people we have been told we are. Maybe ethnic cleansing was a


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