As she patiently heats a Turkish jezba over a large candle to make coffee, Jelena Janic voices exasperation with Yugoslavia's first winter of freedom. "When I was watching the parliament building go up in flames, I'm not sure what I expected, but I know it wasn't this," says the unemployed anthropologist. "Prices have skyrocketed, and I've spent hours each day without electricity."
Six weeks after mass street demonstrations toppled former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in the wake of elections generally considered fraudulent, most citizens are dumbfounded that things seem to be going from bad to worse. The wave of euphoria following Mr. Milosevic's ouster has been replaced by frustration over electricity outages, rising prices, stagnant salaries, and the continuing influence of Milosevic loyalists in key sectors of the economy and political life. His supporters still control the parliament of Serbia, the dominant Yugoslav republic, although that's expected to change with elections in late December.
"This is going to be a very tough winter for us. There's no way around it. It will take months to root out the old guard and the transition will be slow," says Dragan Vucinic, an adviser to the government of new President Vojislav Kostunica.
Citizens are just learning the full extent of the decay that set in during the former regime - under United Nations sanctions for the past eight years. State and private media are reporting for the first time on the desperate state of the country's health, power, and school systems. The former regime, for instance, borrowed electricity from nearby countries last winter, then squeezed Yugoslavia's electric company this summer to return the borrowed power, while delaying needed repairs and maintenance work.
"The power grid is literally falling apart. In retrospect, it's fairly obvious why Milosevic scheduled early elections in September. He knew once the temperatures dropped, the electric grid would fail," says Dr. Vucinic.
One thousand citizens gathered recently in Milosevic's hometown of Pozarevac to demonstrate against power outages. "We don't have power for 12 hours a day, but they keep the lights on at Bambipark all night," says demonstrator Slobodan Perovic, referring to the amusement park owned by Milosevic's son Marko, who is now in exile.
In addition to a collapsing infrastructure, some Milosevic loyalists appear determined to punish citizens for support of the democratic movement. "Let's see what they do now. Here's your democracy," a former Milosevic coalition partner reportedly quipped as Serbia's parliament passed sweeping price liberalizations that sent food prices skyrocketing.
The state of the country's health system is even more dire. "We are currently performing only the most urgent of operations due to a shortage of fundamental supplies," says Gordana Todorovic, an administrator in one of Belgrade's largest hospitals. "If they can afford it, patients sometimes bring their own surgical supplies for operations. Without help from charities, we wouldn't be able to feed patients."
The short-term goal of the new government is to keep social peace during a difficult winter.
Foreign governments and organizations have pledged billions in long-term aid to Yugoslavia, but emergency aid has been slow to arrive. Late last week, $20 million from Germany put the lights back on in central Belgrade.
"Emergency aid will be a key issue this winter.... The aid is arriving slowly, and we have yet to see what will happen once temperatures drop," says Vucinic.
Even though citizens are frustrated by the sudden deterioration in living standards, opinion polls show a majority are optimistic about the country's general direction. "I was determined to leave ... if Milosevic stayed in power," says Janic. "Now I will stay and build my life here. I don't have to listen to their lies on television anymore and that's enough for now."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society