THE Milosevic regime in Belgrade calls it a magazine written by "traitors" and "conspirators." But for liberal Serbs, Western journalists and diplomats, and many broad-minded Croats and Slovenes, the weekly news magazine Vreme is the most essential "read" on the current Balkan tragedy.
It is the only independent publication in Belgrade, with a modest circulation of 25,000 - and an English translation available through a London firm, Yugofax.
Formed three years ago in a Belgrade restaurant after Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic purged the media of opposition journalists, Vreme ("time") combines culture, wit, and irreverence with some of the bravest critiques published of Mr. Mil- osevic's "Greater Serbia" policy. That policy is considered responsible for the "ethnic cleansing" of Muslims in Bosnia.
"In 1989 the best journalists in Belgrade were on the streets," says Srdja Pupovic, a Serb lawyer now seeking political asylum in the United States, who is part owner and founder of Vreme. "Four of us put up enough capital for eight issues, but when people liked it so much, closing it became a moral issue - we couldn't."
Today, most Western reporters trying to make sense of the war, the Balkans, and Belgrade's convoluted politics take the slow elevator ride up to the seventh floor on Narodna Fronta Street, near Belgrade center, where Vreme is published out of a shabby warren of five overcrowded rooms.
During a recent visit, Vreme's business manager is playing "Dungeons and Dragons" on an IBM computer, an Australian TV team is just leaving, and CBS radio is about to tape. The tension is as thick as the cigarette smoke. Everyone here knows the phones are tapped and the office bugged. Several writers have received death threats.
Still, there is humor. A poster left over from student demonstrations last June reads: "Slobo, you can do it," in Cyrillic - a request for President Milosevic to resign.
Many of the Western public's insights into the Balkan war begin here. The magazine publishes transcripts of closed parliament sessions. Its artists draw roaringly funny caricatures of Yugoslav politicians. Rock music, youth culture, who is in and who is out, the rise of organized crime in Belgrade, what the Western media say about Serbia - these are Vreme staples found almost nowhere else here.
Two of the most-quoted Serbs in Western media - Milos Vacic and Stojan Cerovic - work here. If you want to know about the threat of Yugoslav Army Scud missiles aimed at Zagreb, or the caliber of the East German weapons being smuggled into Croatia, Mr. Vacic will know. A tall, brooding man with close-cropped hair who was educated as a philosopher and anthropologist before going into journalism, Vacic's military analysis has become legendary. This day he comes out of his office wearing a T-shirt that says (in English) "Stay Cool."
Mr. Cerovic is sought out for a character profile of any Serbian politician from Milosevic ("capable of anything; he doesn't care about his people") to Yugoslav President Dobrica Cosic ("guilty of providing the intellectual program for Greater Serbia"), to former Prime Minister Milan Panic ("he may not be a serious man, but he was a serious candidate"). He is admired for columns that expose the "criminal" modes and mentalities in Serbia. "Lies, Hatred, and Stupidity," a recent Cerovic headline, pretty we ll sums up his beat.
What most Westerners can't fathom, journalists here agree, is the courage it takes to oppose a regime in a town where more and more men on the street are carrying guns and grudges against anyone not considered a "good Serb." Worry heightened last month with the election to power of the Serbian Radical Party of Vojislav Seselj, leader of the violent paramilitary Serb "Chetniks."
"I admire them [Vreme]," says leading Croatian journalist Davor Glavas whose magazine Danas was closed down by Zagreb authorities in September. (See story, next page.) "We've had some terrible strains here. But it doesn't compare to the kind of pressure Vreme is under."
The answer to why the magazine is allowed to stay open requires Balkan logic: First, the tradition of open discussion is an old one in Belgrade. Second, Milosevic can say he has a free press by pointing to Vreme. Third, print culture and thinking people are increasingly marginalized in Serbia and don't carry the kind of weight with the masses that TV does. Fourth, as one Western diplomat says: "If Vreme is published, the opposition views are in the open and Milosevic can try to follow and control them."
Even a free press is a somewhat relative thing. While Vreme has reported what the Western press has said about "ethnic cleansing," it has not ventured to cover the volatile story with its own reporters. Some complain the magazine is unwilling to call the Serbian people to repentance for the war, but wants only to focus on Serb leaders.
Cerovic says the magazine is evolving: "This country is such a mess that we don't have to discuss it too much. It is easy to make a good magazine if you have common sense. Our work is about peace and war, life and death. It is that simple."