No sign of revolution amid highs and lows of Fortress Serbia

While many Serbs dislike Milosevic, he stays firmly in charge ahead of polling, write Lutz Kleveman in Belgrade

At four in the morning, Goran finally broke our "don't mention the war" agreement. With a voice softened by whisky but steady with conviction, he said: "All right, my Nato aggressor friend, your air force is not bad, but our parties are better than yours." He was right, entirely. The Prestige club boat, moored on the Danube in Belgrade, was being rocked by a crowd of young people frenetically enjoying a night out - high on cheap alcohol or soft drugs. This was Balkan joie de vivre, far from the gloom and drudgery that foreigners might expect to find in Serbia after the Kosovo war. Same people were finding life in a pariah state quite fun. Ninety miles south, in the industrial town of Kragujevac, Ivan Simic and his wife spent the evening in a less buoyant mood. They are among about 150,000 Serb refugees from Kosovo who fled the province in fear of attacks by ethnic Albanians after Nato-led troops drove out Belgrade's forces last year. "The Serbs here in Kragujevac treat us like second-class citizens," complained Mr Simic. Local people blame their compatriots from Kosovo tor the Nato bombing which destroyed the town's Zastava car and munitions factory. Life is hard and gloomy.

Back in Belgrade, Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic has reason to be content in the run-up to next month's elections. He is more finnly in power now than at any time since the early Nineties. The Kosovo gamble has paid off for the wily dictator. The post-bombing reconstruction of the country is the new rallying cry to mobilise the masses. The evening news bulletins on state television extol the regime's achievements - rebuilding bridges, railway lines and factories - in the face of economic sanctions and military siege by tbe West. Opposition leaders are branded a treacherous bunch of Western stooges and Nato agents. Tbe fortress mentality works to some extent. Few Serbs have good things to say about Milosevic, but even fewer like the West. Even the most anti-regime and Western-minded believe that tbe bombing campaign was wrong. One Belgrade taxi driver neatly reconciled both antipathies: "Slobo, too, is a Western agent. He does whatever suits those imperialist Americans." Typically, his problem with "Slobo" was not that he started wars - but that he lost them. Conspiracy theories abound in a Serbia where gangsterism is rite and life is cheap. Several leading gangsters and politicians have been killed recently under mysterious circumstances, among them the infamous paramilitary leader, Arkan. "This might be a murderous power struggle," said one political observer. "But no one really knows what's going on in the regime." While there has long been talk of a possible palace coup, a revolution trom the street appears a way off. The opposition parties which failed over the weekend to agree on a single candidate tor the election are as weak and divided as ever. Fewer people are tuming up tor their rallies on the Republican Square. Those who do listen politely and then go home. The only possible serious challengers to the regime's power make a point of not being serious at all. "We bite the system, hut our weapons are charm and wit," said Milan Samardzic of the student movement Otpor (Resistance). . Untainted by corruption, the Otporista are rapidly gaining support among a population disappointed with opposition parties. "Unlike them, we have no interest in money or power- we just want to see Milosevic go," said Mr Samardzic. 23, a law student. The authorities have branded Otpor a "fascist terrorist" organisation. Police beat supporters badly during a protest, in May. But the students still sing an Otpor hymo: "Save Serbia, Slobo and kill yourself." While disrespectful, it also reveals how helpless they feel in the face of overwhelming force.