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Serb hard-liners look to new strains of nationalist communism to the east, as liberals lose faith in the West

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AS this ancient and cosmopolitan city enters its 16th month at war, the world seems far away. While food and goods from Europe are still plentiful, the international embargo is a constant reminder that Serbia is isolated.

News is scant and slanted. Most Serbs still believe the war in Bosnia was started by Muslims. Every evening brings more TV accounts of "mujahideen attackers" from Sarajevo. Nothing is heard here of ethnic cleansing or the newly reported mass raping and incarceration of pregnant Muslim women by Serbian soldiers in Bosnia. The only outsiders in Belgrade are journalists and United Nations officials. UN talks in Geneva seem to take place in another world.

Internally, Belgrade is in chaos. The upcoming elections show the vulnerability of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who trails Serbian-born American millionaire Milan Panic by one percentage point in the polls. The war, the endless printing of money, the social tensions, and the propaganda lead to a widely shared feeling here that Mr. Milosevic no longer has a strategy; he is making it up, often brilliantly, as he goes along.

Out of this chaos, two basic positions on the West have emerged. The hard-line nationalists who favor a "Greater Serbia" demonize the West as "conspirators against Serbs." Belgrade liberals, on the other hand, say the West has failed Serbs - morally and practically - by a policy of inaction in the face of evil.

The liberals' faith in Western ideals and their own political leverage in Belgrade has been undercut by the West's neutrality. They see the UN "passing resolutions, and doing nothing about them," as one said, citing the failed August decision at the London Conference to remove Serbian heavy guns from Sarajevo, and the unenforced UN "no fly zone" over Bosnia.

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