BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — Empty whiskey bottles, overflowing ashtrays and walls plastered with political posters give the crowded nerve center of Vreme magazine the high-intensity, low-budget look of a 1960s campus newsroom.
The magazine's defiant battle against Serbian nationalism and the senseless destruction of the Yugoslav war is also reminiscent of idealistic student struggles waged a quarter of a century ago against another Establishment embroiled in an unpopular war.
Staunchly committed to the liberal principle that it is a moral duty to question authority, Vreme has grown in its 2 1/2-year life span from an opposition voice in the wilderness to Yugoslavia's most trustworthy chronicle of the gruesome Balkan war.
The weekly offering of articles and commentary provides a window on Serbia's puzzling national mind-set and explains the roots and course of the conflict with chilling accuracy and detail.
Writers and editors who hold court in a cramped office that is a model of Balkan disorder have gained wide respect among foreign diplomats and are frequently quoted by the Western press.
But for all its laudable crusading, Vreme is largely preaching to the converted. Only 30,000 copies are produced each week, and at least 25% of them are sold abroad.
Vreme's exposure is a paltry fraction of that enjoyed by state-run TV Serbia, but its limited appeal explains its survival in a country mesmerized by propaganda.
"In a way we are an alibi for the regime," said Executive Editor Petar Lukovic, noting that Vreme's so-far-unfettered autonomy gives the Serbian leadership something to point to as evidence that it tolerates a free press.
"Under different circumstances, if the majority were to begin reading Vreme, this would be very, very dangerous for us," Lukovic said, predicting the magazine's suppression in the event of an upsurge of readers. "But I wouldn't mind seeing that happen, because it would mean that there had been serious change in Serbia. We would be willing to sacrifice our cult status for a change in the Serbian mentality."
It is Serbia's collective persecution complex that compels most of the country's 10 million citizens to believe the heavy-handed propaganda aired nightly on state television.
Throughout the nearly six years that Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic has been in power, television has convinced the public that its political isolation and economic ruin are the consequences of a heinous international conspiracy concocted by the Vatican, Islam and the West.
With monthly salaries gutted from their prewar average of $500 to less than $30 by hyper-inflation, few in Serbia can afford to buy magazines or newspapers to get a different perspective on their problems. Vreme costs 10,000 dinars--less than 50 cents at the galloping exchange rate but more than a day's pay for many struggling Yugoslavs.
Western diplomats agree with the Vreme editors' assessment that the magazine will have a free hand only as long as it remains limited to the open-minded fringe.
"If they were a danger to the regime, the regime would do something about it, but they are not," one Belgrade-based envoy observed. "The bigger risk is that over time Vreme's editorial staff could be weakened by attrition as people get fed up with this society and leave, especially those with children. It's one thing for an adult to suffer for a hopeless cause, but most of these guys have families they may not be willing, in the long run, to put at risk."
The magazine's most respected writers, like Stojan Cerovic and Milos Vasic, are experienced professionals in their late 30s and 40s, but the bulk of Vreme's staff is wide-eyed, energetic and young.
Vreme is a place where those fresh out of college can rise from street vendor to management within six months, as evidenced by the three top ad salesmen, who are all years shy of 30.
Twentysomething reporters and editors, like the brother-sister team of Dejan and Duska Anastasijevic, are attracted by the psychological rewards of having a front-row seat on history and taking part in what they believe will some day be judged a courageous effort to spread the truth.
Many of the 30-odd employees say they thrive in the loose, chummy atmosphere of the Vreme office, where liquor flows freely through the workday, staff meetings are banned, the phone rings incessantly and no one would think of wearing anything dressier than jeans.
"Nobody is working here for the money, although our salaries are better than the average," said Lukovic, who, despite his senior position, earns only about $70 per month.
"The greatest satisfaction is providing our readers with a mirror in which they can look and say to themselves, 'Thank God there are still some people who think like me,' " he said.
Though far from the Serbian mainstream, Vreme has a loyal following in the educated professional circles for which the magazine was intended.