BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — His diamond-studded Rolex, impeccable suits and a winning, "trust me" smile convey a suave and successful image that Westerners might mistakenly interpret as the reason Serbian voters are drawn to parliamentary candidate Zeljko Raznjatovic.
But for most Serbs who want to reelect the notorious "Arkan" and his Party of Serbian Unity in Dec. 19 elections, it is more his reputation as a jail-breaking gangster and ruthless warlord that wins them over.
Convicted of bank robbery in Sweden and wanted by Interpol for questioning in connection with a spree of other armed heists and assaults across Western Europe, the baby-faced 42-year-old is the embodiment of every nationalist myth the mesmerized Serbian people hold dear.
As leader of the most feared Serbian paramilitary force, his name strikes terror in the hearts of people in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, where his heavily armed gang has been photographed in the act of "ethnic cleansing," adding its share of victims to the Balkan war's estimated 250,000 dead and 2 million homeless.
He has amassed phenomenal wealth over the last two years by turning U.N. sanctions to his own advantage, raking in millions in hard currency through a massive gas-smuggling and money-laundering operation.
Although his financial success has come at the expense of those whose votes he now solicits, they tend to admire a rogue from their own ranks who has made a mockery of the sanctions Serbs believe have been unfairly imposed against them.
Most importantly, at a time when Serbia has fallen into global disrepute for instigating the Balkans war, Arkan telegraphs to his ostracized countrymen that he remains proud to be a nationalist patriot.
He responds to questions about his status as a wanted fugitive and accused war criminal with a profoundly Serbian display of \o7 inat--\f7 a mixture of defiance, hubris and spite that has no equivalent in the English language.
"I will go to a war crimes tribunal when Americans are tried for Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Vietnam, Cambodia, Panama!" he snaps when asked about U.S. accusations that he has committed atrocities in pursuit of Greater Serbia.
While outside observers are baffled by the seeming lack of public concern here that such a controversial figure may soon be the second most powerful politician in rump Yugoslavia--after Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic--Arkan's transformation from paramilitary warlord to political powerbroker raises few eyebrows among the 10 million residents of Serbia and Montenegro.
Extraordinary times, many believe, justify extraordinary choices.
Two years ago, Arkan led his Serbian Volunteer Guard--also known as the Serbian Tigers--in the rout of Croats from eastern Croatia.
U.N. troops who deployed to the region last year have gingerly maneuvered around Arkan's stronghold, bowing to his superior firepower and his forces' disdain for the foreign presence. The "blue helmets" even vacated their original Sector East headquarters when Arkan demanded the building to expand his own base.
In one of the more glaring indignities of a U.N. mission renowned for humiliations, peacekeepers stationed at the vanquished village of Erdut have to submit to periodic document checks by the "Arkanovci" and wait at rebel roadblocks while the paramilitaries move in contraband fuel and weapons.
Arkan's presence in Parliament, along with that of other accused war criminals, has further discredited the Belgrade regime with Western democracies.
But he serves a number of domestic political needs.
Though ostensibly a Milosevic rival, Arkan has joined in the regime's efforts to lay responsibility for the devastated Serbian economy on the outside world, which imposed sanctions. He was one of the first politicians to call the punitive measures "genocide," a label now routinely affixed to any mention of the sanctions.
Moral support from purported political competitors has helped persuade Serbs that they are the victims of an international conspiracy--not their rulers' ineptitude.
Imports of food and medicine are not subject to the U.N. embargo, but Serbian officials have nevertheless blamed every shortage and hardship afflicting their country on the sanctions rather than on the government policies that invited global condemnation and helped bankrupt the country.
Western diplomats and some Serbian analysts see Arkan's candidacy in next week's elections as a Milosevic maneuver to help cement his power in much the same way he did a year ago.
When the last two republics remaining in Yugoslavia went to the polls last Dec. 20, Milosevic gained effective control of both the Serbian and federal parliaments by backing another ultranationalist warlord, Vojislav Seselj.
Seselj and his Serbian Radical Party provided a rallying point for ardent nationalists who were opposed to the conciliatory policies of then-federal Prime Minister Milan Panic, but also reluctant to endorse the renamed Communists in Milosevic's Serbian Socialist Party.