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Monday, April 26, 1999 Published at 15:59 GMT 16:59 UK

Mira Markovic: the power behind the throne?

Mrs Markovic votes in the 1997 elections, Mr Milosevic looks on

By Phil Rees, reporter for BBC television's Correspondent

Kosovo: Special Report
A few days before Nato bombs hailed down on Serbia, I crossed the Sava River and drove toward New Belgrade. I'd arranged a meeting with a leading Serbian political analyst, Professor Stojanovic. I explained that I wanted to ask a few questions about the rule of Milosevic. He interrupted; "There is one thing you must understand about Milosevic. Unlike most men in the Balkans, he has only slept with one woman in his life."

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I laughed but the Professor was not smiling. He went on: "His relationship with (his wife) Mira Markovic is key to understanding the events of the last ten years in Yugoslavia."

Sloba and Mira's tragic youth

The ruling couple is known to friends and foe alike as Sloba and Mira, the diminutives of Slobodan and Mirjana. Their names translate as Freedom and Peace.

[ image: Mira and Sloba have been a couple since school days]
Mira and Sloba have been a couple since school days
The couple met as teenagers in secondary school in 1958. Friends recall how the couple became entwined:. "At school they were never apart, they always held hands" remembers Seska Stanojlovic, a fellow pupil.

Tragedy was to inflict Milosevic's youth. An uncle who had regularly visited his home blew his brains out with a shotgun. When Sloba was 21, his estranged father who lived in Montenegro, was to commit suicide in similar fashion. When Sloba was in his early thirties, his mother hanged herself from a light fitting in the family home.

Mira's youth is also stained in blood. Her mother was a Partisan fighter who was captured by the Nazis in 1942. Under torture, she apparently gave away secrets. One account suggests that after her release, her own father - Mira's grandfather - ordered the execution of his daughter for treachery.

Kosovo - Key figures
Nebojsa Covic, the Mayor of Belgrade from 1994-7, believes that Mira's past is part of her living nightmare today. "Mira has this central problem. She functions by trying to prove whether her mother betrayed (the Partisans) or not. I think she is imagining that she is Tito's successor and all of us are part of her inheritance with which she can do whatever she wants."

'Mira's in charge'

The former head of Belgrade TV, Dusan Mitevic was a close companion of the family for nearly twenty years. "Mira has become a great leader. Over the last decade his real influence has decreased and Mira's influence has increased." According to Mitevic, when it comes to the "main political and personnel questions, she's in charge".

[ image: Mrs Markovic waves after her speech to the Yugoslav Left Union in 1996]
Mrs Markovic waves after her speech to the Yugoslav Left Union in 1996
Slavko Curuvija, the newspaper editor and publisher who was murdered on April 11th in Belgrade was a close confidant of Mira's. Curuvija described a common occurrence when he met the couple: "He was never the one who was talking. She used to say, Look Sloba, somebody will call you. Please pick up the phone ... He was saying yes, yes, da da."

The remarkable thing about her role as first lady of Yugoslavia is her propensity to burst into tears while discussing affairs of state. Mitevic is convinced Mira is unstable. "She draws into herself, becomes passive but harbours great aggression" he says. He describes her as "a drawing room Communist", an ideologue whose mind is "far from reality".

What few in the West seemed concerned about is that the couple would use the crisis to shore up their political power at home by destroying dissent and closing down the opposition media.

In recent months, Slavko Curuvija had become a prominent critic of Sloba and Mira. Last year, he wrote an open letter to Milosevic asking him to resign as President of Yugoslavia. After war began, he was accused of supporting the Nato air strikes. A week later he was gunned down as he entered the driveway of his home.

His row with Mira last October, after several years of friendship, was bitter. That was the last time he saw her. Probably no one will conclusively find out who ordered the killing. But many will suspect.

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