Serbs Skeptical of Future

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Aleksandar Jakov prods the branches of the linden tree with a coat hanger to loosen its yellow blossoms, struggling to gather flowers for tea and save the equivalent of a dollar.

Times are desperate for the Jakovs, both retirees in their late 60s — and though Slobodan Milosevic's extradition has brought promises of more than a billion dollars in foreign aid, poor Yugoslavs are skeptical things will improve.

"I'm waiting," his wife Zorka says, "for something worse."

In a matter of months, Serbs — more than 90 percent of Yugoslavia's population — have seen more turbulent times than many people do in a lifetime. Milosevic was ousted from office in October, sent to prison in April, and on Thursday whisked away to another country to stand trial for alleged war crimes. The politically controversial move led to the collapse of the government, further unsettling emotions.

Now, ahead of Milosevic's first appearance Tuesday at the U.N. war crimes tribunal at The Hague, Netherlands, any hope is leavened with a heavy helping of cynicism nourished under Milosevic. His legacy of poverty and destitution is a result of 13 years of lost wars, crushed hopes for democracy, NATO bombardment and unrest worsened by Western economic sanctions.

In the final months of his rule, 64 percent of the 10 million population lived below the poverty line, existing on the equivalent of less than $30 a month — leaving Serbs among the poorest of all Europeans.

Soup kitchens, once unknown because of the country's rich farmland and socialist safety net, began to turn away people by the thousands. Hospitals that had offered universal treatment began to insist that patients purchase the instruments before surgery — and arrive with their own sheets.

Responding generously to Yugoslav appeals for reconstruction, international donors in Brussels, Belgium on Friday pledged $1.28 billion in assistance — a large chunk of which was tied to Milosevic being surrendered to the tribunal. In parting, Milosevic had finally benefitted Serbs, it appeared.

Most of the funds, however, will not trickle down to ease the misery of the average Serb.

Much of it will go to service the $12.2 billion foreign debt — ending up in the hands of Western lenders. Another portion will be spent on the repair of bridges, roads, factories and other infrastructure destroyed by NATO during its 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia.

Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic acknowledges that the donors' conference money will do little for most Serbs. In comments published Sunday by Germany's Handelsblatt financial daily, he said the republic needed $650 million for the next two years above what was pledged at Brussels.

"After 10 years of isolation, we are practically bankrupt," he said. "If we don't show the population soon that things are getting better the political situation could become very critical."

Still, even if most Serbs don't see any silver lining with Milosevic gone, few are sorry that he went.

In the Belgrade suburb of Rakovica, Biljana Tekic, 41, faults the new pro-democracy government only for taking too long to send him away. Where was Milosevic — a man she voted for twice — when her husband lost his job and she was forced to start selling vegetables just to make ends meet?

"I wanted to see his face as they took him away," she says. "And I wanted him to see the people who were hungry ... who had suffered."

Extradition was too good for Milosevic, says Rakovica potato vendor Svetolik Zivkovic, 72.

"They should have done the same thing they did to that joker in Romania," says Zivkovic in a dark allusion to another Balkan strongman: the late Nicolae Ceauescu of Romania, executed after a bloody uprising and hasty trial in 1989.

Some of Milosevic's detractors take particular solace in the fact that he was extradited on St. Vitus day, the holiday marking the Serb defeat by the Turks in the battle of Kosovo in 1389. Serbs see the day as a turning point in the history of their nation, claiming it sacrificed itself for centuries to hold back the Turks from advancing much further toward northern Europe.

Milosevic, who had used Kosovo as a springboard, made his most famous speech marking the 600th anniversary of the battle in 1989 — anti-Albanian nationalist comments in the heart of the province that united most of Serbia behind him, hastening his rise to power.

"There's a bit of poetry in there," says Dobrivoje Velickovic, 41, a hardware merchant at the open market in Rakovica. "It is the day that began his career.

"Now it is the day that also ended it."