Milosevic's Troubles At Home

Serb leader's support erodes as he tightens control, citing conflict.

The way Sladjana Vesic sees it, life couldn't get much worse here. Wages are down, prices are up, and corruption is everywhere.

That's nothing new in today's Yugoslavia, Ms. Vesic says - but this is the hometown of President Slobodan Milosevic.

"There are a lot of things ... that I would rather not talk about," says Vesic, a nurse. "But I can tell you for sure that life was much better here 10 years ago."

It was about 10 years ago that Mr. Milosevic climbed to the top of the Yugoslav Communist Party. Under him, Serbs would taste bitter nationalism, become international pariahs, set records for hyperinflation, and wage four wars.

The growing unpopularity of the first family hints at more trouble. Without a real support base - experts say he's backed by just 25 percent of voters - Milosevic must tighten his rule to hold on. More conflict may justify such a move.

"Milosevic is a very wise politician," says Monika Zivojinovic, news director at the only independent media outlet in Pozarevac, Boom Radio 93. "He creates problems then solves them. He can only exist in a crisis."

This week Milosevic averted NATO airstrikes at the last hour by withdrawing his troops from the southern Serbian province of Kosovo, where a 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority wants independence.

NATO had mounted escalating threats in recent weeks, despite internal differences over the justification for airstrikes.

Milosevic appeared to remove that justification with his withdrawal. But he did so after hundreds of people, mostly ethnic Albanians, were killed and more than a quarter of a million were displaced from their homes. Thousands remain in the open, according to representatives of relief organizations that are now beginning to get through.

He also introduced a law to crack down on news outlets that give "anti-patriotic" or "anti-government" information.

After Kosovo, many expect trouble in the tiny republic of Montenegro, which is seeking more autonomy.

Few 'first family' fans

In Pozarevac, a city of 80,000 that's famous for its sugar biscuits, it's hard to find a kind word about the Milosevic family. Many people say they are intimidated by Marko, a bleached-blond in his 20s who races sports cars and owns a bakery, a radio station, and the biggest disco in Yugoslavia, Club Madonna.

The younger Mr. Milosevic, who according to the local press has wrecked some 15 cars, was recently alleged to have been involved in a pistol-whipping incident at a local cafe, in which the victim reportedly "looked at him the wrong way."

"Marko has a lot of money and he uses his power however he can," says Danijela, a high school student who said she was afraid to give her last name. "But I have to be careful of what I say about him."

Unlike Marko, Milosevic's daughter, Marija, keeps a relatively low profile. She left Pozarevac for Belgrade, the capital city, and rarely comes home. Although new to the media industry, she appears well on her way to becoming a magnate. Not yet 30, she owns a radio station and a new television channel that plays music videos.

Another new television station, Radio Television Yugoslavia, is owned by Slobodan Milosevic's wife, Mirijana Markovic. She is the leader of the Yugoslav Left, a coalition of Communist-oriented parties that has roughly the same number of parliamentary seats as her husband's Socialist Party.

She used to write an influential weekly newspaper column that was said to be the closest thing the government has to an ideology.

Ms. Markovic is considered the dominant partner in her marriage; she did not take her husband's last name despite the country's patriarchal traditions.

A wellspring of power

Like the wife and children of Milosevic, others from Pozarevac have risen to power, including Federal Vice President Ratko Markovic, Minister of Health Leposava Milicivic, and Serbian Minister of Police Vlajko Stojiljkovic.

"This is the nerve center of Serbia," says Ms. Zivojinovic from Boom Radio 93. "It's the center of the power of the government."

But residents of Pozarevac complain that the city is rife with organized crime and illegal drugs. The divisions between rich and poor are more exaggerated here than in other parts of the country, they say.

Nenad Malinovic, a "trader" who wears Nike sneakers and carries a cellular phone, says business is booming. He has monthly earnings of more than $3,000 - compared with the average salary of $150.

"It's like the Wild West," he says. "If you have money you make money. Anything can happen here."

The less fortunate - pensioners, factory workers, and the unemployed - live in poverty and fear.

Miroslav, a retiree who declines to give his last name, is walking along the town's main boulevard with his wife when he is stopped by a journalist. His wife tells him not to speak, or he might get in trouble. "I've been silent for 50 years," he snaps back, "and look where it got me - nowhere!"

"We have to live from day to day," he says. "For 36 years I had to work for my benefits, and now I get nothing in return."

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