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Yugoslavia: Beta's Ljubica Markovic Tells How It Was In Belgrade

Ljubica Markovic of Belgrade says that three days ago (Oct 9) she drew her first truly free breath in eight years. That was when Markovic, director of Serbia's only independent news agency -- Beta -- came to believe at last that the 13-year autocracy of Slobodan Milosevic had ended in her country. In this first of a two-part series, Markovic tells RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill what it was like in Serbia in the last few years -- and in the past few days.

Prague, 12 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Ljubica Markovic is a witness with more than 100 sets of eyes -- all of which have been fixed in recent years on events in Yugoslavia.

In 1992, Markovic and a handful of colleagues from the Serbian state news agency, Tanjug, broke free during a crackdown on independent media and set out to create Beta, their own private, Belgrade-based news service. Now Beta's director, she has served in the agency's upper echelons since it moved its first news report six years ago.

Nobody in the Balkans has been better positioned than she -- supervisor of 100 full-time professional journalists -- to watch the recent events in Yugoslavia unfold. Still, Markovic says, she and everyone she knows were amazed as they watched the power of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic gush away like blood from a slashed artery. She says it started at midnight September 24 after the day's Yugoslav presidential election.

"We had many, many turning points. The first one was on September 24, midnight, when first informal results were published saying that [the] opposition was winning. You know, all our correspondents around Serbia were saying, 'DOS, DOS is winning, DOS is winning.' And it took us by surprise."

DOS is the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, a loose 18-group coalition of Milosevic opponents that opinion polls had been showing as likely victor for weeks. But Yugoslav opposition coalitions had splintered in the past, and the wiliness in adversity of Milosevic and his allies was legendary. Markovic says:

"And then, suddenly, between 2 o'clock and 4 o'clock in the morning -- between [the] 24th and 25th [of] September -- the silence was complete from the Milosevic-loyalist Socialist and JUL [communist Yugoslav Left] parties. They had closed their premises completely and no journalists were there. It was clear that it was going wrong [that is, badly] for them."

Still, the Milosevic side resisted acknowledging the voters' verdict.

On Monday (Oct 9), Markovic says, she breathed freely for the first time. Milosevic's Socialists and their allies appeared finally to agree to new Serbian parliamentary elections and to a provisional government to supervise the elections. While it remains unclear when the elections will take place, the long struggle seemed over.

"I think that was the crucial point. Only [Monday] I could say now all obstacles are down and we can completely be free."

For Markovic, more even than for most other Serbs, the question of freedom was personal rather than ideological or theoretical. As the director of a news organization that sought to report events, whether or not the reports displeased the Milosevic government, she was a conspicuously visible thorn in the hide of the authorities.

"This is really a completely, completely new situation in Serbia. It is something that is hard to believe what has happened. Sometimes I feel as if I am still dreaming, you know, when I wake up in the morning. Are we really without Milosevic? Is it really possible that this is possible? You know, it is a miracle. When I keep talking to people they say they feel really the same. Because after 13 years of that kind of leadership, that kind of power, it is really very hard to believe that is possible everything has finished in four or five days."

Markovic recalls that only a few weeks ago she was skeptical about Vojislav Kostunica, the opposition presidential candidate who succeeded where many others -- better known and initially more popular -- had failed. She took note that he was the leader of a minor right-wing party -- one that did not welcome compromise or alliances -- that he was openly a Serbian nationalist, and a supporter of military commanders of questionable repute. But, she says, his comportment in recent weeks has changed her mind.

"Somehow he has changed. And I hear from those who are in contact with him -- for instance, foreign journalists and diplomats in Serbia -- that he has made a big evolution in himself and that he has accepted the fact that being president means really opening to Europe. And I am sure that he is a democrat."

Kostunica, she says, seems like a new light shining on Yugoslavia in his public appearances -- graceful, courteous, educated, a student of law and constitutional government, a man who speaks several languages and understands the world. She believes that even his ardent Serbian nationalism is a plus because, she says, "without that he could not have been elected."

Those are strong words from a crusty editor who build her reputation as a critic who would not be silenced.

(Part two of this series will deal with the history of Beta -- "The News Agency that Markovic Built.")