All In The Family

FATHER WAS HAVING A BAD week. After losing local government elections in major Serbian cities, Slobodan Milosevic overturned them, pushing thou- sands of demonstrators into the streets. Mother wasn't much help. Mira Markovic, Slobo's wife and an unrepentant communist, saw her own political party trounced. Meanwhile, her much read diary, published in the magazine Duga, hinted broadly that her husband had been having an affair with a Serbian TV anchorwoman two years ago. "I heard that some people didn't know who I meant the first time I wrote about this," she said, and so she repeated the story. And then there are the two kids: Marko, the winless race-car driver, and Marija, the pistol-packing disco queen who tells fortunes by reading coffee grinds. "This is really the dictatorship of the Addams Family," says Mirjana Bobic-Mojsilovic, a prominent journalist. "Except they're not as funny. For us Serbs, it's always black humor."

Things didn't look funny last week for Serbia's strongman. Nearly three weeks of daily demonstrations have humiliated Milosevic; for the first time he really seemed in trouble. Washington, which had embraced him as its partner in implementing the Dayton peace plan, now pronounced him "not indispensable" and threatened to reimpose sanctions if he uses force to suppress the protests. The government-controlled press railed against the demonstrators as "terrorists" on a "pro-fascist rampage." In fact, they hardly did anything more violent than pelt government buildings with eggs--which are so costly in inflation-ridden Serbia that their prices immediately soared. What really seemed to scare the regime was that the marchers began to demand not just the restoration of opposition victories but Milosevic's resignation.

So far Milosevic has dragged his country into an unwinnable war, turned it into a pariah nation and wrecked its economy so severely that the lifting of international sanctions has scarcely improved life for most people. Along the way, he's had more than a little help from Mira. A man without a childhood--both of his parents committed suicide--Milosevic relies on Mira so much that many observers see her as his mother figure, and a domineering one at that. After the affair two years ago, the couple reconciled--and soon after, many of Slobo's most able supporters and ministers were cashiered for not meeting Mira's test of political correctness (a hard test to meet, since the socialists had renounced the communism Mira holds so dear).

Mira, whose mother was executed by fellow communists as a snitch, is a figure of many passions, most of them strange. In one column for Duga, she asked why Belgrade housewives are not better housekeepers; in another she dismissed AIDS as a disease of "prominent homosexuals and Hollywood stars." Turning to political scolding, Mira went on to build her reconstructed far-leftist alliance--with support from Slobo's ruling party. When diplomats visited Milosevic during the crisis, they found a man surrounded by sycophants who don't dare tell him the truth. "Milosevic doesn't have any idea how bad things really are," said a Western diplomat.

Unsavory lot: The opposition does, and it has happily ridden the wave of public indignation. Unfortunately, Serbia's opposition figures are largely an unsavory lot. The best known of them, Vuk Draskovic, once led a rightist paramilitary band. Democratic Party leader Zoran Djindjic, who would have been mayor of Belgrade if the election results had stood, has been praised for keeping the protests peaceful--but has disreputable friends among Serb fanatics in Bosnia. Dismayed by the bickering opposition parties, which have splintered even since the elections, university students have organized separate protests, and some workers demonstrated, too. "We've had enough of this; for five years we've been told things will get better," said Stojan Dordjevic, a 50-year-old rubber-industry worker. "Milosevic has driven the country to economic disaster, ruined the future of my children, and now he's stolen our votes." His factory closed, Dordjevic scrapes by selling potatoes on the street--when he's not out marching.

A half decade of war created a class of high-rolling war profiteers and jet-setters who dominate Belgrade's social scene, and entrenched a class of corrupt party apparatchiks. In a city where the average income is about $100 a month, it's not unusual to see Maseratis driven around by self-professed war criminals. First Son Marko Milosevic, whose only apparent means of support is a rural discotheque he owns, is an outspoken proponent of the sort of style Serbs call the "Four P's": pager, pistol, plavusa (blondes) and Pajero (a type of car), although he prefers a yellow Ferrari. "I can't sit in a car alone without music and a gun," Marko told an interviewer from Vreme last summer. "I have to have a girl and music and a car and gun." A bad combination: by his own count the 22-year-old presidential son has totaled 15 cars in 19 accidents. The police don't dare arrest him; a photographer who took his picture recently was brutally beaten.

Marko's sister, Marija, 31, is the editor in chief of a Belgrade radio station that plays Serbian pop music--and wasn't jammed like its feistier brethren last week. She's had a series of boyfriends, who tend to be elevated to ambassadorships. The decadence of the Milosevic inner circle grates in a land where wages go unpaid and pensions shrink monthly. In the Milosevic hometown of Pozarevac, Slavka Ilic, 58, is selling her grandchildren's clothing at a street stall: "They have two big houses, and I haven't had my pension in two months."

"We're not going to take it anymore" was one of many of the protesters' chants last week. After 17 straight days on the streets, turning out in force despite bitter cold and even snow, protesters were making that point stick. Milosevic's government floated offers of compromise, announcing the resignations of the information minister, Aleksander Tijanic, and the fraudulently installed mayor of Nis, the second largest city where opposition parties had their wins invalidated. Two radio stations were reopened--the government lamely blamed the closure of the popular Radio B-92 on the flooding of its transmitter.

That's probably not enough. Unless Milosevic either hands back Belgrade or resorts to force in the streets, it seems unlikely the protesters will go home soon. Either course could break Milosevic's grip on power. An opposition victory now will buoy it toward an even stronger challenge in next year's federal elections; a crackdown could provoke widespread international condemnation. But the status quo may prove even worse, given the protesters' apparent staying power: "The longer this goes on, the weaker he gets," says a diplomat in Belgrade.

It has often been said that Slobodan Milosevic believes in only one thing: power. Nobody thinks he will go easily. Once a Communist Party stalwart, he remade himself a nationalist in a bid to keep power--and wrecked Yugoslavia in the process. Then he became the peacemaker whose cooperation made the Dayton peace plan possible--and betrayed his protEgEs among the Bosnian Serbs. But democrat does not seem to be in the Milosevic repertoire. A democrat must be willing to lose.