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Ethnic Discord : World War II Lives On for Militant Serb Chetniks : The disenchanted are breathing new life into an old movement in strife-torn Yugoslavia.

July 09, 1991|MICHAEL MONTGOMERY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — In the West, 21-year-old Vladimir Mrklja would probably be mistaken for a heavy metal fan. Dressed in black garb reminiscent of World War II, he displays the iconography of obscure war heroes and the long tangled hair of a rebel.

But in war-torn Yugoslavia, Mrklja is one of thousands of young, unemployed men who have enlisted in radical nationalist groups to do battle for the cause of Serbia, the biggest of Yugoslavia's republics and one steeped in a tradition of warfare and rebellion.

Mrklja joined a faction within the Serbian chetnik movement last year when nationalist euphoria swept the region. Chetnik is a traditional Serbian term stemming from the time of Ottoman rule and denoting a combination of guerrilla band and village guard.

It has become a rallying cry for the disenchanted, who feel that Serbia has been victimized and betrayed by a federal concept that they think undervalues Serbs by making them only an equal member of the multinational Yugoslav state despite a tradition of political dominance.

Today's chetniks claim to be the heirs of the Serbian royalist units who took to the hills after Nazi Germany's invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941 to fight for the restoration of a Serbian-dominated monarchy. Their command structure was based on small, locally controlled units, prone to splintering and resistant to incorporation into a broader-based movement.

Under the command of a nationalist radical the West once considered a victim of Communist repression, the chetniks now employ the same guerrilla tactics to recapture the dream of a mighty Serbia that would dominate the other republics of the federation.

Vojislav Seselj, the self-proclaimed Vojvoda, or "duke," of the chetniks, last month won a vacant seat in the Serbian Parliament when he ran against a handful of political no-names in the working-class Belgrade suburb of Rakovica.

The election of Seselj--whose movement was banned from contesting last December's multi-party elections in Serbia because of its ultranationalist appeal--lends his extremist views some legitimacy, and his party a voice in political affairs. (Seselj sidestepped the earlier ban by running in the June by-election under the banner of an ostensibly new Serbian Radical Party.)

The chetnik leader's ascension reflects a turn to the far right as Yugoslav federal structures and authority collapse into anarchy, and the basic underpinnings of the multiethnic federation are challenged by declarations of independence from Yugoslavia passed late last month in both Slovenia and Croatia.

The militant Seselj, 36, has acted as a magnet for youths like Mrklje, using the country's deepening economic and political crisis to galvanize hundreds of disenchanted young men around radical calls for the unification of Yugoslavia's 9.5 million Serbs into an enlarged, independent Serbian state. A fiery orator and determined campaigner, he is the point man in what he envisions as the rise of a new Serbia from the ashes of Yugoslavia.

To carry out this long-held dream of Serbian nationalists, Seselj has backed guerrilla assaults on Croatian police and security units to "liberate" his people in Serb-populated regions of Croatia and to expand republic borders to include Serbs in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Chetnik units have reportedly infiltrated ethnically mixed regions of both those republics, provoking violent clashes with police and militia. Seselj boasts openly of his troops' prowess in killing 12 Croatian police in a four-hour gun battle in May in the mixed-population town of Borovo Selo, a Serbian nationalist hotbed.

Mrklja is one of those who has already tasted battle--a foot soldier in the as-yet-undeclared Yugoslav civil war, fighting Croatian police with guns and ammunition "borrowed" from police stockpiles.

Seated with two comrades-in-arms at the Russian Tsar cafe, Belgrade's nationalist hangout, Mrklja said Serbia's once bitterly divided nationalist splinter groups are finding common ground as fighting worsens in Yugoslavia. "The time to fight for our survival has come," he said. "We no longer fight one another. Some of our fathers dreamed of Serbia but fought for misguided causes. We will no longer be deceived by a Yugoslav myth. Our only interest is protecting and defending Serbia and Serbs, wherever they may be."

Seselj--whose name was often raised as a symbol of Communist repression by human rights organizations during the 1970s when he was imprisoned by the government for his nationalist activity--is threatening new assaults on Croatian targets if there are more Serbian casualties in the current ethnic strife. His private army has threatened to assassinate Yugoslavia's new Croatian president, Stipe Mesic, and blow up the country's only nuclear power station at Krsko, in eastern Slovenia near the Croatian border.

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