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Profile : Serbia's Ultranationalist Leader Emerges as Formidable Political Force

August 03, 1993|LAURA SILBER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — Ultranationalist leader Vojislav Seselj drew thunderous applause from cackling legislators in the federal Parliament recently when he dubbed the Yugoslav army commander in chief, Gen. Zivota Panic, a "thief" and a "common criminal." His allegations of financial wrongdoings and nepotism captured headlines in state-controlled newspapers and all but finished Panic's career.

The incident also reinforced Seselj's reputation as the "Grand Inquisitor" of Serbia.

Indeed, after Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, Seselj (pronounced SHESH-elye) is the most powerful politician on the scene here. To the surprise of many, the extremist Serbian Radical Party, which he founded two years ago, captured about one-third of the seats in both the federal and republic parliaments in elections last December. After the vote, Milosevic's Socialists entered an unofficial coalition with the Radicals.

"It is like the time when Hitler came to power," says Zoran Mamula, a journalist with Belgrade independent radio B-92. "If elections were to be held now, he'd do even better than before. As people become poorer, they are looking for someone who will keep the situation under control."

Seselj became an international cause celebre in 1984, when he was sentenced to eight years in prison for having written an unpublished nationalist tract.

"He went to prison as a young rebel and came out of prison a convinced monarchist and nationalist," said Belgrade sociologist Slobodan Inic.

Released from prison after 21 months of reportedly brutal treatment, Seselj soon ran afoul of his former backers in Belgrade. He supported himself mostly by selling typescript copies of his books on the street, Inic says.

Seselj cut a comical figure. Standing 6 foot 6 and donning a Serbian royalist fur cap regardless of the weather, he took to threatening, "When I come to power I will arrest Milosevic."

To most, he did not appear dangerous.

"He was so monstrous. He was so extreme that no one took him seriously. But Milosevic needed him to mobilize the radical elements of the population," said a history professor at Belgrade University who spoke on condition of anonymity.

While other mainstream Serbian opposition politicians were struggling to get time on state television, Seselj emerged to get top billing.

Designated a Serbian military duke, or vojvoda in Serbo-Croatian, Seselj founded a private militia called the Chetniks after the World War II-era Serbian royalist army. His Chetniks are accused of murdering and expelling non-Serbs from Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and they were seen returning to Serbia in stolen cars filled with televisions, video recorders and jewelry looted from the victims of war.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger and the human rights watchdog group Helsinki Watch include Seselj on a roster of war criminals they want to appear in front of a proposed international tribunal.

While he once blustered about arresting Milosevic, Seselj is in reality a puppet of Serbia's ruling Socialists. "Milosevic created him. Seselj fed on his milk," a Western diplomat said. "Milosevic used his creation Seselj to say and do what he didn't dare."

It was Seselj whom Milosevic used as his front man in ousting former Yugoslav federal Prime Minister Milan Panic (no relation to the Yugoslav general) last December, and federal President Dobrica Cosic in June.

Panic, a Belgrade-born naturalized American who heads a Southern California-based pharmaceutical company, was tormented by Seselj as an "American spy" after he attempted to block Seselj and other nationalists from carrying out their campaigns of "ethnic cleansing." Riding Milosevic's wave of nationalism, Seselj early on was one of the few politicians to dismiss the threat of Western intervention against Serbian targets.

His hatred of the West is intense. When Washington decided to pursue the threat of war crimes tribunals, Seselj declared: "I am proud to have been proclaimed a war criminal by the U.S."

He has fostered close ties with radical Russian nationalists opposed to President Boris N. Yeltsin and has even signed up Russian mercenaries for his paramilitary units in Bosnia.

In contrast to Milosevic's tacit support, Seselj's earlier mentors have turned against him. Momcilo Djujic, reputed to be the last surviving World War II Chetnik leader, bestowed the title of vojvoda on Seselj four years ago. But later, Djujic said: "I am disappointed in Vojislav Seselj for openly collaborating with Milosevic's Socialist Party, with Communists who have only changed their name. . . . Seselj has sullied the reputation of Chetniks and Serbian nationalism."

But Seselj has developed a true following in Serbia amid hyper-inflation and concern about the country's future.

His confidence about his power is apparent in his standing demand for $500 cash before submitting to any press interview and his swaggering behavior in Parliament, where he struts about with a pistol stuffed into his belt below a protruding belly.

Born in 1954 in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo--which he calls the "center of Serbia"--Seselj is reputed to be the youngest Ph.D. in postwar Yugoslavia, receiving his degree in the Marxist doctrine of military defense at 25.

"People forget, time is on his side," Mamula said. "He is still a young man."

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