BELGRADE — To thousands of protesters who have marched in Belgrade for seven weeks, everything wrong with Serbia comes down to the ruling family - particularly the wife of President Slobodan Milosevic.
Demonstrators hold up pictures of Mira Markovic and shout "red witch." As her husband's closest confidant and leader of her own neo-communist party, she is depicted as the power behind the throne.
And as pressure against the regime builds, the opposition widely believes Ms. Markovic, more than her husband, is pushing for a hard-line response - and maybe even a violent crackdown.
Markovic was christened Mirjana, but as a child she adopted her mother's partisan nom de guerre, Mira, which means "peace." Her mother was shot as a traitor in 1942 after revealing the names of comrades under torture by Hitler's Gestapo. Her father, a senior Communist Party boss, is said to have ignored his daughter.
Mr. Milosevic's early life was touched by similar tragedy: Both parents committed suicide. The couple has been close since meeting at school in the small Serbian town of Pozarevac.
Markovic helped manage her husband's rise to power in the mid-1980s. A professor of Marxism at Belgrade University, she now has her own party, the Yugoslav United Left (JUL). The party has achieved great influence in Yugoslav political life, beyond its tiny popular support.
"JUL is a mass of contradictions," says Belgrade commentator Dejan Anastasijevic. "It is a mixture of war criminals, smugglers, state industry bosses, and idealists."
The membership of JUL (pronounced "yule") comes mostly from governing and business elite. It has little popular support, polling 2 to 3 percent in elections. JUL politicians, however, make up about half of the Cabinet and a third of parliament. It is seen as a communist party, but it recently campaigned for privatizing state firms.
Western diplomats in Belgrade say that JUL's influence means that any privatization will not be genuine. Diplomats say the political elite in JUL will either retain control over key industries or enrich themselves in the process of privatization. "Serbia is a country run for the benefit of 200 families," comments one outside observer.
Markovic wears a trademark plastic flower in her black hair and affects girlish mannerisms. But her influence is preeminent. Her column in Belgrade's Duga magazine is known as "the horoscope" for its accurate predictions of which ministers are to be sacked.
As protests in Belgrade began to build - after authorities canceled Nov. 17 local election results in 13 towns that the opposition won - Markovic rushed back to Belgrade from a book tour in China.
More than just restoring election results, the opposition says it wants to sweep away "Serbia's police state" and break the government's virtual media monopoly.
When Markovic returned, hers became the first official voice to counter the demonstrators. In the Duga column she called protesters "fascist malcontents."
This rhetoric, along with appeals to peace, brotherhood, and unity, evokes Yugoslavia's communist past. Many in Serbia are concerned that it will revive the old conflict between communist partisans and Chetniks (anti-communist nationalists).
Meanwhile, another conflict may be brewing between the regime and the military. This week, the opposition began circulating a letter apparently from several Army officers - including some from the elite 63rd Brigade. In it, the officers say they won't turn against protesters - as the military has done in previous protests. "We will not be against our people," it says. "Our planes, tanks, and weapons will be turned against the enemy."
While the rift with the military could be just beginning, Markovic has long feuded with Danica Draskovic, wife of opposition leader Vuk Draskovic.
"She is from a lowly family," wrote Markovic of Mrs. Draskovic, "and has the hysterical belligerence of inferior people, especially nonachieving women."
In what is known in Serbia as "the war of the wives," Draskovic hit back, writing in her own column that Markovic "sees herself as she would like to be and projects her own features onto her hated and dangerous rivals."
The ill feeling extends to Milosevic's whole family. Antigovernment demonstrators carry flags of the Italian carmaker Ferrari - a satirical reference to Milosevic's son, Marko, who drives a Ferrari. He wants to be a racing driver and has reportedly crashed more than 20 cars. The police haven't pursued inquiries into the accidents.
Milosevic's daughter, Marija, owns a radio station that many critics say was bought with a loan from a state bank.
All this has political significance - stirring up the passions of the people against the elite and inviting comparisons with Romania's Ceaucescu family, or the Philippines' Marcos family.
The Milosevic offspring are seen as part of the elite: businessmen, Socialist and JUL officials, and war profiteers who enjoy a life of expensive cars and cellular phones.
Because the average wage in Serbia is $120 per month, the opposition seeks to make Markovic's power - and the privileges her family enjoys - the focus of discontent for many Serbs about their own poor standard of living.