BELGRADE, Yugoslavia – The bird cages in Ivan Gakovic’s bedroom are empty. The high school student built them himself, but he can’t even afford to buy a canary. Instead, the flickering of an old American movie on TV provides the only movement in his room. The lanky young man sinks deeper into his chair for yet another dull night in his parents’ stuffy apartment.
“Generation without a future, ’80” is scrawled in English on Ivan’s bedroom door. The words sum up the feelings of many young people here who have spent most of their youth under Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s rule of war and poverty.
Since the 11-week NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia last spring, Ivan has spent most of his days holed up in his room with his girlfriend, watching TV and playing rented video games.
At least airstrikes were a break in the routine, says Ivan, who lives across the street from the bombed-out shell of a Yugoslav Army building in central Belgrade. “We miss the air-raid sirens,” he adds nonchalantly.
As the country slowly emerges from war, young people here are discovering that their already meager perspectives have diminished to nearly zero. Depression, hopelessness, and a lack of motivation are the result.
After a decade of four wars and a precipitous drop in living standards, prospects for a better future have never been bleaker. The damage inflicted by NATO airstrikes has resulted in some 100,000 people losing their jobs. In addition, per capita gross national product has dropped by one third, from $1,500 to $1,000.
Disillusionment is widespread, although spontaneous protests against the government have broken out around the country and a large opposition rally in Belgrade is planned for Aug. 19.
Forced to confront problems
During airstrikes, most residents of the Yugoslav capital focused on continuing their lives as normally as possible. But, when the bombing stopped in June following the Kosovo peace agreement, many were forced to confront the country’s disastrous economic state.
“Now it’s back to reality,” says Teofil Pancic, a columnist for the independent Belgrade weekly Vreme. “Reality is neither peace nor war. It’s the depression of realizing you’ll go on living in a society like Milosevic’s Serbia.”
Serbia’s exclusion from international institutions and processes – including the recently initiated Southeast Europe stability pact – adds to young people’s lack of hope.
“People in my generation all remember the time when it was normal to go to Paris or London. We could travel everywhere and had enough money to do it,” says Pancic. “It was a paradox that we were living in a kind of communist society but felt like Westerners. After all this, we have to feel humiliated.”
Nenad Dragojlovic, an archaeology student at Belgrade University, says he went through a brief period of depression following the airstrikes. “Now I’m trying to finish my studies and find a way to leave the country,” he says. “Whatever happens on a political or economic level, I’m trying not to get upset. But I get angry sometimes with the people who are satisfied with this life, with the people who are afraid to demand a change.”
Mood swings between depression and anger are common in a stressful situation, says Zarko Korac, a social psychologist in Belgrade. “Depression is not only negative. It’s also the realization that your perspectives are very slim.”
More and more, Mr. Korac says, depression is giving way to anger.
“I feel anger. Life shouldn’t be like this; nothing positive happened after the airstrikes,” says Biljana Petrovic, a part-time waitress in a fashionable Belgrade cafe.
Like most people her age, she dreams of leaving the country as soon as she finishes college. “Even if you are full of energy and willpower, you cannot use them because the government stops you,” Ms. Petrovic says.
An education rarely leads to a well-paying job in Serbia’s wrecked economy. The only avenue to even modest wealth is a career in private enterprises – inevitably tied to the black market. Jobs as teachers, doctors, and other positions in the state sector are the least desired.
Wages have dropped to 10 percent of 1990 levels, if workers get paid at all. Airstrikes have drained the last government reserves; state wages and pensions haven’t been paid since the spring.
Unemployment, furthermore, is a formidable problem. Almost half of the labor force is unemployed, 70 percent of whom are seeking work for the first time.
Unwilling to take action
While many people plan to attend the first anti-Milosevic protest in Belgrade Aug. 19, there is also a certain psychological inertia among the population.
The failure of opposition demonstrations in 1996-97 to remove the government has created the image of an invincible regime. Now, most people are simply waiting for something to happen, unwilling to take the initiative themselves.
“I’m not going to be abused anymore. I don’t regret the demonstrations two years ago, but I can’t believe anybody in our political life anymore,” says Mr. Dragojlovic, the archaeology student. “The opposition can have my support only in a legal election.”
Political commentator Pancic says that elections are the only real alternative to frustrations turning into violence. “People want to see Milosevic leave, but the most they’re willing to do is go on the street and have a little shout,” says Pancic. “You’ll have a huge opposition rally on Aug. 19. So what? Nothing,” he says. “If you want to change the ruling party, you have only two ways: elections or the thing that happened in Romania.”
Ten years ago in neighboring Romania, a defeated, isolated, and impoverished population executed its communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, in a sudden and violent uprising.