SERBIA'S FUTURE political stability hangs on its new leaders' ability to plug gaping holes in energy, power and transport infrastructure, business leaders warned this week.
It is feared that chronic shortages of oil and natural gas at electricity generating stations and community heating centres across the country will result in a level of suffering this winter that has been unprecedented in recent years.
A public health crisis is anticipated if there is not enough energy to heat homes, hospitals and other public buildings as winter temperatures plunge to -20degreesC.
People will vent their frustration on the new political regime with highly unstabilising effects, said Djordje Siradovic, managing director of Serbia's largest cable manufacturer Novkabel.
It is predicted that pipelines damaged from neglect will limit distribution of oil and gas as it becomes available following the lifting of trade sanctions.
The wreckage of bridges destroyed last year during Nato airstrikes is blocking the River Danube, the spine of Serbia's freight transport infrastructure.
Delivery of oil to power stations at Novi Sad and higher up the Danube is impossible. And gaps in the rail network, caused by bombing and neglected maintenance, prevent economical distribution of oil or coal by train.
Much of Serbia's electricity generating plant is out of action or seriously under capacity.
There are huge holes in the transmission network, with power lines down and transformers and switching stations out of action. Nato bombing is partly responsible, but the problem mainly lies with failed maintenance.
No investment in new assets or upkeep of existing assets have taken place in Serbia since deposed president Slobodan Milosevic came to power 13 years ago, said Alexander Kovacevic, a consulting engineer working for the United Nations Organisation for the Coordination of Humanitarian Relief. It is estimated that energy sector assets have shrunk by £5.8bn to £1.4bn since 1985-6.
Serbia and neighbouring Montenegro, which together with Kosovo, make up the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, need 3,000MW of new generating capacity, said Kovacevic. Some 6,000MW of existing generating capacity requires overhauling.
And 30,000MW amps of transformer capacity destroyed by bombing must be replaced.
Head of the Department for Trade & Industry's commercial section in Belgrade Dusko Sokic called for a phased approach to infrastructure work in Serbia, starting with the emergency repair of the energy and power distribution network.
A provisional energy board was created this week to draw up a definitive list of projects, manage finance and provide technical expertise. The projects will include laying rail track over a 300m road and rail bridge spanning the River Sava in Bosnia to allow 6,000t a day of heavy fuel oil to be transported to generating stations. Debris in the River Danube, where wreckage from three bridges destroyed by NATO at Novi Sad is blocking delivery of fuel, will also need clearing.
People will rapidly become disenchanted with new democratic president Vojislav Kostunica if they are cold this winter, predicted Mladen Barcot, managing director of Belgrade-based import-export firm Mabar. 'The ability of government to make a real difference to people's quality of life, short term, is fundamental to the country's stability.'
Barcot warned that Milosovic's Socialist Party still had a controlling majority in Serbia's national government and would be playing on this winter's hardships to weaken president Kostunica's democratic coalition.
'The guys in charge [Milosevic's Socialist Party] are doing all they can to tell people it will be worse under democratic government than it was under Milosevic, ' said Barcot.
It is vital Serbia's new leadership consolidates support by preventing widespread suffering over the winter, confirmed Siradovic. 'Most people did not so much vote for Kostunica as against Milosevic, ' he said. 'The democratic government has to prove it is better.'