By CHRIS HEDGES
BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Although the opposition appears to have won a tremendous victory in its 78-day confrontation with President Slobodan Milosevic, the crisis that has rocked Serbia is far from over.
The opposition coalition that now takes control of Serbia's 14 largest cities -- and aspires to wrest power from Milosevic -- has yet to come up with a vision for this country, which is mired in economic collapse and political turmoil that shows no signs of abating.
Although opposition leaders talk frequently of their plans for a market economy and a "civil society," their commitment to those ideas remains unproven.
The predominant desire among workers who have lived for months without salary and hard-pressed retirees is for a strongman to impose order.
Rather than spell out austerity measures and painful reforms, opposition leaders rely on the same images and slogans of Serbian nationalism that ignited the war in Yugoslavia six years ago and made Serbia an international pariah.
Wednesday night, for example, one of the leading opposition figures, Zoran Djindjic, lambasted the government for abandoning Serbs in the last Serbian-held enclave in Croatia, due under the Dayton peace agreement to be returned to Croatian control in July.
The plight of Serbs living outside Serbia's borders was a key issue for Milosevic as he transformed himself from communist leader to popularly elected nationalist.
"Our political opposition, as has been the pattern for most of our history, simply mirrors the government," said Latinka Perovic, who was purged in 1971 from her post as head of the Communist Party in Yugoslavia when she began to push for liberal reforms. "It refuses to mention our problems in public.
"No one is attempting to build a rational political program, to be self-critical. Instead the opposition, like the government, rejects gradual, systematic change for this archaic, romantic Serbian nationalism that belongs in the 19th century."
Djindjic insists that he is not a nationalist and that he is using such oratory only because it is essential to building any political movement in Serbia. There are limits, he said in a recent interview, on how quickly his countrymen can be persuaded to follow the path blazed by others in the region.
"I have to believe that the majority of Serbs want to become Western," he said, referring to European political systems, "but we must also address those who are afraid of the West. It will be devastating for us if we make the wrong estimation, if we turn sharply toward the West and discover that only a minority of the Serbs want to go in this direction."
Djindjic says he hopes to privatize industry, foster a free press and build an independent judiciary, but his is only one voice among an opposition that covers the spectrum from Belgrade intellectuals who genuinely espouse democracy to ardent nationalists.
"For the moment our concern is with the cities we will control," Djindjic said. "But we are fighting a system that has a total monopoly on all exports, all production, all state and local expenditures, all credits and the media. For now we can't even control city clerks, who have the power to sign away a 200-million-dinar building for a 1-million-dinar bribe."
Unlike many of its neighbors, Serbia has not even begun to dismantle the political and economic underpinnings of communism. Most people work for companies controlled by a government that dominates every aspect of commerce, from banking to exports.
Staggered by an economic embargo during the years of the war in Bosnia, Serbia's economy and its bleak, polluted cities and towns are sad testaments to communist mismanagement and post-communist corruption.
Trains, which rarely break 40 miles an hour on old tracks, can no longer effectively transport goods. Factories, saddled with obsolete technology from two decades ago, limp along at 10 or 20 percent of capacity. Roads are filled with yawning potholes, and the currency, bloated with a government decision to begin printing money, is barreling daily toward hyperinflation.
The country has a 60 percent functional illiteracy rate. Foreign investment is nearly nonexistent, and wages have dropped from about $800 a month to less than $100 a month.
The cost of Serbia's flirtation with glory and power can be seen outside Belgrade's shabby soup kitchens.
At one of the largest, retired men and women, their bony fingers wrapped around the wire handles of round tin lunch pails, stood in front of a window in a distribution center on Bjelanoviceva Street.
Milena Milojevic, 49, is a mother of two who has worked for 28 years as a checkout clerk in a government supermarket. She makes $100 a month, spending $60 a month to rent a tiny apartment that does not have running water. Her husband has been laid off from his job at a government factory.
Mrs. Milojevic's family lives in the middle of the country's capital and uses an outhouse in back of the building. Her remaining $40 a month does not begin to feed or clothe her 14-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter. After nearly three decades as a minor government employee, she survives on charity.
"Our society has collapsed," she said. "You have to be a fool not to see this. I don't waste my time with the opposition rallies -- this is for the middle class. If this opposition takes power, it will steal like Milosevic. We need a strong leader one who doesn't go abroad like these other opposition leaders to speak badly about Serbia and carry out the orders given by the West. This is the only way out."
Despite appeals by the opposition coalition for Western support, the United States and Europe are widely blamed for betraying the Serbs. And while many use the catch words of democracy, few seem to understand them.
"The crowds in the street look and sound pro-American," said Bogdan Denitch, the director of the Institute for Transition to Democracy, "but if tomorrow Washington begins to put pressure on Milosevic to respect the rights of the Albanian majority in Kosovo, the crowds will swiftly turn anti-American.
"The opposition does not see its role as one of educating the crowd to the reality around us. I am worried that with Milosevic weak and on his way out, he will be replaced by an even weaker opposition that will have to play to the sentiments of the crowd, to all these nationalist pressures from below."
In fact, the state propaganda machine has devoted increasing space and air time to the plight of the Serbian minority in Kosovo, the southern province where Serbs rule over an Albanian majority.
That leaves the opposition, which supports the Bosnian Serb leadership and was critical of the Dayton peace agreement, in the position of having to once again outdo the President as the real defenders of the Serbs.
"It is absurd to speak about Serb ascendancy in a nation where one-third of the people are non-Serbs and then call ourselves democrats," said Obrad Savic, the editor in chief of the magazine published by intellectual dissidents from the Belgrade Circle, "but it is symptomatic of the hollowness of our political debate."
Already there are signs that the economic crisis is shattering the fabric of the society. Without a cohesive ideology or understanding why their society has collapsed, many Serbs have begun to flail about in uncoordinated attacks. Teachers are on strike, with metal workers and communications workers threatening now to join them.
"Such strikes will inspire other groups to strike," wrote columnist Ivan Torov, in the independent daily Nasa Borba. "The authorities may soon find themselves trying to put out multiple fires and struggling to stave off a general conflagration."
But such a rebellion, without a clear political orientation and led by opposition leaders who refuse to discuss the causes of the nation's troubles, increasingly worries many union leaders and intellectuals.
"The opposition has no economic program, and its supporters parade through the streets wearing monarchist emblems and clutching crosses and candles," said Branislav Canak, the president of the Independent United Branch of Trade Unions. The economy is collapsing, but we have yet to frame and unify our political debate. In the end we will be controlled by numerous angry mobs seeking quick solutions. This isn't going to work. We are headed for chaos."
The government daily issues Potemkin-like figures showing that production is on the rise and the economy is improving. Prime Minister Mirko Marjanovic announced recently, for example, that this was "the year of reforms" and went on to promise "a better, richer and more humane society."
Even Wednesday as the opposition was poised to take over city halls across the country, many ordinary Serbs seemed skeptical.
"The opposition may find that it, instead of Milosevic, will be blamed for the devastated economy," said Dragana Lovic, a secretary. "No one will remember that it was the Socialists who ruined the country and will begin to look for someone else. We have short memories."
The student movement has refused, because of its distrust of the political opposition, to meld its forces with the Zajedno coalition. But while the student movement distances itself from the political debate, its naivete and lack of focus is one of the clearest examples of the failure by most Serbs to understand what has happened to them or where they want to end up.
"The problem," admitted one student leader, Goran Pavlovic, 23, "is that people know what they don't want. And they don't know yet what they do want."
Thanks to Bob Djurdjevic (TRUTH IN MEDIA Phoenix, Arizona, e-mail: email@example.com) for sending this article.