BELGRADE, Yugoslavia - The strange thing about a rave party in the police state of Serbia is that the drug Ecstasy is not only easy to find, it's also very cheap.
Like ravers at clubs throughout Europe and the United States, the thousands who dance until dawn in Belgrade are often tripping on Ecstasy, which they can buy from dealers at the door as easily as tickets.
Except on the rare occasions when a government-sponsored goon tosses a tear-gas canister onto the dance floor, Serbia's ravers are free to escape the doom and drudgery that are life in Yugoslavia - using any drug that works.
While a growing number of young Serbs frustrated by the corruption and infighting among opposition leaders is trying to lead a credible challenge to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, the overwhelming majority are retreating within themselves, hoping someone else can save Serbia, the dominant Yugoslav republic.
"Our major philosophy is having a good time and not thinking about the terrible economic situation and all the other difficulties in this country," says Dejan Milicevic, 20, one of three rave disc jockeys who call themselves Teenage Techno Punks.
"We do it only as musicians, not for politics," he adds. "The truth is that we're a bit frightened because there aren't a lot of people who know us, so our disappearance wouldn't be noticed. The government doesn't make many concessions."
Policing strikes, not drugs
The rivalry between Serbia's main opposition leaders, Vuk Draskovic and Zoran Djindjic, continues to sap the opposition movement's strength.
About 10,000 protesters turned out on a recent Saturday at a rally in central Belgrade, capital of both Yugoslavia and Serbia. But organizers had expected at least 100,000.
Serbian riot police were out in force the previous day as a few thousand supporters of the student-led Otpor, or Resistance, movement rallied peacefully in central Belgrade to protest the government's decision to shut down universities early, apparently to prevent a student strike.
But Serbian police do so little to stop drug dealers that even some of the users are starting to wonder whether Milosevic has secretly concluded that raving on Ecstasy is an excellent opiate of the people.
Milicevic and his fellow Teenage Techno Punks, Milos Pavlovic, 21, and Marko Nastic, 20, have helped raise funds for Serbia's democracy movement. But like most Serbs their age, they are careful not to stick their necks out too far.
"A lot of people our age don't even understand the situation," Milicevic says. "They just accept the facts as they are."
Tuning out reality
If reality gets too scary, as it often does in what's left of Yugoslavia, about $10 will buy a hit of Ecstasy and a ticket to an all-night rave party on a river barge in Belgrade.
Amid the flicker of strobe lights, on a dance floor filled with as many as 2,000 people, things can start to look up.
"The police allow all these things simply because they want people to be silent," Nastic says.
'Not to be here'
Gordon Paunovic, a 36-year-old promoter and one of the pioneers of rave parties in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, wonders whether he is unwittingly helping Milosevic survive by helping young people turn on and tune out.
But he can't think of a better way to help young Serbs satisfy their longing to feel part of the world after a decade of war and sanctions - especially when a foreign act comes to play.
"It's not only about listening to some music, or getting drunk or taking some drugs," Paunovic says.
"When you see in front of your eyes - in Belgrade - someone who is really a big name, you are really disconnected from Serbian reality. You could be anywhere in the world. And that's what any Serbian kid wants - not to be here."
The abject failure of Serbia's veteran opposition leaders to transform widespread unhappiness with Milosevic into a force strong enough to topple him has spurred some of the young people who grew up under his rule to try to lead the fight to get rid of him.
The Otpor movement claims to have about 25,000 members. And the official vitriol, thuggish violence and police raids aimed at frightening away more supporters for the student-led movement, show how seriously Milosevic takes this latest threat.
But away from the street rallies, and Otpor's brave calls for an uprising, the voices of young Serbs have been more subdued, even as Milosevic has seized the independent radio and television stations that were their best windows to the outside world.
Yet from his retreat on the Sava River, Milutin Krunic, 21, might as well be a world away.
"It is so close, yet it seems like a switch goes off in my head as soon as I get here," Krunic says. "I don't care about anything else then - and the least about what's going on 200 yards from here."
Krunic, a technician with Yugoslavia's largest mobile phone company, Mobtel, lives in an apartment block on the edge of Belgrade.
He spends much of his spare time hanging out in one of 182 boathouses moored on the shores of Ada Medjica.
Most afternoons, Krunic takes off in an inflatable rubber dinghy with a small outboard motor. "Realistically, I don't think that the man under whom we had the greatest hyperinflation in the world will remain in power," Krunic says, careful not to utter the name Milosevic.
"On the other hand," he says, referring to NATO's 78-day air war against Yugoslavia last year, "I don't believe that those who bombed us last year will manage to help somebody to power. I am beyond this. I turn to nature, to the river, to girls. I am not disillusioned, I do have hope, but I don't know in what."
Early exposure to politics
As a boy, Krunic spent almost five years in Libya, where his parents were teachers until they returned to Belgrade in 1991 as their country was disintegrating.
At age 12, he volunteered with the most popular opposition party, Draskovic's Serbian Renewal Movement, because he "just wanted to make things better for people."
Still, Krunic eventually played both sides of the street.
After graduating from high school, he tried to open a pizza-delivery service with the son of a high-ranking official in Milosevic's government.
In the same year, he says, "I would sell smuggled gasoline on the street and sit with the president in the soccer stadium's lounge."
Unlike many Serbs his age, Krunic was able to get a good job straight out of technical school. But instead of bragging about his success, Krunic talks about how it can humiliate other people working just as hard.
"I have, with an entry-level job, a salary 2 1/2 -times greater than my parents, who have 25 years of teaching experience," he says, lowering his head.
Like the remnants of his country, Krunic is torn.
Part of him wants a piece of the good life, the promise of the West. But another voice tells him to reject it, to take strength from the pride of surviving in the prison that is Serbia.
"The wind carried me on both sides," he says. "I think I've seen it all. Now, I am neither here nor there."