In one of the wilder turns in politics here, a 37-year-old woman known for outspoken democratic views and the kind of good looks that have some in the local media comparing her to Nicole Kidman has become acting president of Serbia, the dominant Yugoslav republic.
Natasa Micic stepped into the job Dec. 31 after two presidential elections failed to draw the required number of the republic's voters to the polls. She is about as unlikely a politician for the high-profile position as can be imagined. She is also the first woman to serve in the post.
Under the Serbian Constitution, in the event a president's term expires and elections fail to provide a successor, the job goes to the speaker of the parliament.
Although Micic is viewed by pundits here and Western diplomats as a caretaker until a president is elected, they acknowledge that she could be in the job for a while. They also note that she is going to lead the effort to rewrite the Serbian Constitution, which could have considerable impact on the governance of the republic, potentially decentralizing power.
A number of experts believe Serbia must change its constitution, jettisoning the requirement that more than 50% of voters participate in order to elect a new president. The reforms could take months.
In the meantime, Micic is, at the least, an unexpected model for women in a country in which political power has been almost entirely controlled by men.
"It does show that women can get a high position, and in that it is a sort of achievement," said Bratislav Grubacic, a prominent political analyst here in the Serbian and Yugoslav capital.
However, he added, there was "no way" she would be able to stand up to Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, the most controversial but powerful political leader in the republic.
For women, both in politics and out, Micic is a welcome change from the usual diet of almost always bullying and sometimes corrupt power brokers who, though far more palatable than former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, are viewed as less democratic than many people had hoped.
"Natasa Micic is by far the best solution at this moment," said Neda Arneric, one of 27 female members of the 250-seat parliament. "She will bring a breath of freshness to the stale atmosphere that has dominated Serbian politics in the past two years."
Arneric got to know Micic when both were elected deputies in October 2000, after Milosevic's ouster.
"After serving with her in the parliament, I see how capable, full of energy and uncorrupt she is and ... because she was not hoping for this position, she was not telling us all the fairy tales that [candidates in the elections] were trying to sell to us," Arneric said.
In interviews with Yugoslav newsmagazines, Micic took pains to make clear that she would not run for the job as permanent president primarily because she believes that she can do more good as the parliament's speaker, who can influence legislation and policy. The job of president, while high profile, has more limited impact.
"I really regret that the elections were not successful," said Micic in an interview in Vreme, a weekly newsmagazine. "The main reason for that failure was apathy ... but one of the reasons for that was that among the candidates there was not one representing the civic option," she said, referring to the approach of her own party, which welcomes broad participation of citizens in government.
Micic is a member of the Civic Alliance, the smallest -- and one of the most liberal -- of the 18 parties in the coalition that supports Djindjic. Her party is viewed as free of corruption and the nationalist taint attached to some other factions. She is a strong supporter of a system in which the president is appointed by parliament.
During the Milosevic years, the two most prominent women in Serbian politics were Milosevic's wife, Mirjana Markovic, often called "the red witch," and Danica Draskovic, the wife of Vuk Draskovic, the leader of the largest opposition party in the 1990s. Neither was particularly well liked but both wielded considerable power.
A lawyer by training, Micic lacked the political connections during the Milosevic era needed to be a candidate for a judgeship. She also opposed the regime. So she went into private practice, defending Otpor, the Belgrade-based student group that marshaled opposition to government, and ANEM, an association of independent media. In October 2000, she drove to Belgrade from her hometown in western Serbia to participate in the demonstrations that ousted Milosevic. She and a companion pasted a poster of Milosevic's putative successor, Vojislav Kostunica, to the windshield and under it wrote, "Thelma and Louise."
Once in parliament, Micic was initially given the relatively low-profile post of deputy speaker. About a year later, she gained parliament's top post with the support of Djindjic.
Despite her educational and political credentials, the local media have focused on her red hair and appearance, giving more space to pictures of her legs than to the exposition of her ideas.
Some observers, however, think people may be underestimating her.
"She is a woman who will get things done in spite of everything," said Arneric, adding that all the insults and sexist comments that were made are more likely to "motivate her to do her job in the best possible way, and a lot of people will be surprised.
"For some, like me, that will be a pleasant surprise," she said. "And for some, who are more primitive, that will be an unpleasant surprise."
Times staff writer Rubin reported from Vienna and special correspondent Cirjakovic from Belgrade.