BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — Vuk Draskovic casts his penetrating black eyes toward the heavens and dashes spread fingers through his tangled dreadlocks in a plaintive, exasperated gesture. He grips the microphone with both hands, seals shut the eyes that are windows on torment and launches into a diatribe on the evils of communism.
His riveted disciples follow his lead in kissing the sacred soil of Serbia, then chant his name and flash the three-fingered symbol of his staunchly nationalist party. The darkly charismatic leader of the opposition Serbian Renewal Movement seems to deliberately strike the pose of a messiah.
While Serbia may be in need of a savior to rescue it from an impending economic and ethnic apocalypse, Draskovic is more often compared to Russia's Rasputin than to the figure of Moses he tries to emulate.
Vuk, as he is universally known to his devotees and detractors alike, has inspired a cult-like following among young Serbs disillusioned with the veritable dictatorship that remains in power. But his many doubters fear his mix of nationalist rhetoric and anti-communism could be just the explosive formula to blast Yugoslavia into civil war.
The 45-year-old former journalist and author of chauvinistic novels shares some of the most disturbing views of his Communist archrival, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. Both have stoked the fires of fanaticism among 9 million fellow Serbs by exploiting the issue of Kosovo province, the republic's most impoverished region where 1.8 million ethnic Albanians represent a 90% majority.
Milosevic won broad Serbian loyalty by using his three years in power to subjugate Kosovo Albanians, claiming that they were plotting to annex the territory to neighboring Albania and threatening the 200,000 Serbs still left in their midst. Violence has racked the province for more than two years since Belgrade imposed a police state, ostensibly to prevent rebellion. Sixty Albanians have been killed in the recurring violence.
Draskovic, engaging in a dangerous game of oneupmanship, has promised to expel those in Kosovo who refuse to declare allegiance to Serbian rulers in Belgrade--even the vast majority of ethnic Albanians who were born into Yugoslav citizenship and are constitutionally accorded the same cultural autonomy as the Serbs.
"The war between Serbs and Albanians will be very short," Draskovic has observed coldly. "But room for negotiations is closed."
Serbs identify Kosovo province with the time in their history more than half a millenium ago when Serbia was a proud and independent nation of fearless warriors. The province hosts the revered venue of a proud 1389 battle. The Serbs lost, but through valiant defense managed to slow the Turkish advance into Europe.
Vows to recover Kosovo from ethnic Albanian control figured prominently in last year's presidential campaign between Draskovic and Milosevic. The Communists won a stunning 65% in the December election, backed by a sycophantic state-run media and a political machine accustomed to the perquisites of power.
Normally gregarious and equal to any fight, Draskovic showed a mercurial quality when he disappeared to sulk for two days after the election, then emerged to bitterly denounce his fellow Serbs for choosing "darkness, bondage and Bolshevism." The wailing outburst was not absent all truth, as Serbia was the only region of Eastern Europe to willfully return a hard-line Communist regime to what amounts to continued monopoly rule.
But Serbia has been unraveling since the poll only four months ago. Living standards have plummeted amid a desperate financial crisis, and the republic's incessant conflicts with neighboring Croatia have devoured resources that might have helped toward recovery and reconciliation.
The republic's political crisis took a dramatic turn for the worse in March, when Milosevic ordered a brutal police crackdown against peaceful demonstrators who had gathered to hear Draskovic implore them to bring down what he claims is a dictatorship blocking reform. From a balcony of the National Theater that looks across Republic Square, where 30,000 had assembled, Draskovic ordered his followers to "charge!" Rioting erupted, killing two and injuring more than a hundred. Yugoslav federal troops and tanks were sent in to quell the disorder.
One of hundreds arrested after the melee, Draskovic emerged unrepentant from four days' imprisonment, vowing to oust Milosevic and his Communist henchmen for turning their guns on fellow Serbs. "I curse the man who ordered the use of the military against the Serbian people," Draskovic told a wildly cheering crowd of 40,000, only minutes after his release.
Milosevic was forced to agree to some relaxation of media controls and bans on public protests to clear anti-Communist protesters from central Belgrade.