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He Can't Seek Office, but Notorious Serb Warlord Still Stumps in Bosnia

Balkans: The man called Arkan is known for 'ethnic cleansing.' His participation in campaign typifies its bizarre nature.

September 12, 1996|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BIJELJINA, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Like a Hollywood celebrity, Arkan, the notorious militia commander, strode onto the stage, waved at his crowd of admirers and shouted a pledge to defend the Bosnian Serb Republic to the death.

Patriotic songs filled the air while young men waved red-and-blue banners. Arkan kissed children bearing flowers.

A surreal campaign requires surreal characters, and Bosnia's election has its share. In northwest Bosnia, a Muslim warlord is on trial for armed rebellion and treason at the same time he is running for president. In the west, some of the same Bosnian Croats who rounded up Muslims into concentration camps now direct political parties.

But undoubtedly one of the characters of most unsavory repute is Arkan, whose smiling baby face looks down from hundreds of campaign posters covering many of the very villages his paramilitary forces, known as the Tigers, emptied of Muslims and other non-Serbs early in the war and as recently as last fall.

"A war criminal? Me?" Arkan said, complaining to reporters that he is always misrepresented in the Western press. Speaking in English, he held forth in an interview following a Monday night political rally in Bijeljina, near Bosnia's northeast border with Serbia.

Arkan, whose real name is Zeljko Raznatovic, said he believes in peace and the U.S.-brokered agreement that brought it to Bosnia. But if Muslim "extremists" threaten Bosnian Serb land anew, he asserted: "I will be the first one here. They are my people."

His Serbian Party of Unity is fielding a candidate for the presidency of the Bosnian Serb Republic--a 30-year-old woman nicknamed Tina--as well as vice presidential and legislative hopefuls. Arkan himself is not a candidate; he is not a Bosnian but a Serb of Serbia proper.

In one of the more Orwellian twists of this campaign, the international organization in charge of monitoring the election gives money to Arkan and other politicians to publish brochures and posters--even though the message they promote goes directly against the peace treaty that the international community pretends to uphold.

Arkan's party, like other Bosnian Serb nationalists, calls for the Republika Srpska (the Bosnian Serb Republic) to secede from Bosnia-Herzegovina and unite with Serbia. Such rhetoric has dominated most Bosnian Serb political rallies for two months.

Finally, on Tuesday, Western election officials for the first time took action against the abuse. In two judgments, the officials punished the ruling Bosnian Serb party for use of language that "challenges or denies the territorial integrity" of Bosnia.

"The occasional lapse into ethnic hatred and the denial of the sovereignty of Bosnia-Herzegovina has escalated in the last 10 days to become almost routine," said Stephen Bowen, special advisor to the Election Appeals Sub-commission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

As punishment, the OSCE withheld $50,000 of the money it was to give the Serbian Democratic Party of Radovan Karadzic--who has been indicted by the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague and consequently has been barred from public politics. The OSCE stopped short of dismissing the party's leading candidates--apparently out of fear of disrupting the elections--and Karadzic posters, a fixture throughout the Serb-held half of Bosnia, were ordered taken down.

But coming just four days before the election, the sanctions seemed too late to change the influence exerted by misleading campaign rhetoric, monitors said.

As for Arkan, despite the widely held belief that he pioneered the practice known as "ethnic cleansing" and reports that he is also wanted elsewhere in Europe for bank robbery, he is not on The Hague's list and therefore has no limits on his campaign profile.

More than 1,000 people flocked to Bijeljina's main square Monday night to see the man many Serbs consider a hero. Arkan and his Tigers seized Bijeljina on April 1, 1992, wiped out token resistance, executed Muslim leaders and terrorized the population.

More than two dozen Muslim civilians were killed in two days; the war began in Bijeljina. The first city to fall to Bosnian Serb forces in what would become a chain of devastation, Bijeljina then saw the exodus of its majority Muslim population. Today, it is overwhelmingly Serb.

But Arkan, dressed in a black three-piece suit, vest buttoned up to his neck, described those events differently.

Flanked by party officials and bodyguards, he grabbed the mike with both hands and told the crowd, "We came at night, and we prevented a new genocide [of Serbs]."

Arkan's presidential candidate, Ljilja "Tina" Peric, also addressed the crowd. Peric is president of a humanitarian agency called Third Child--which, among other things, pays Bosnian Serb families to have three or more children.

"Brothers and sisters, go out and give birth to as many Serbian children as you can!" she urged. "We must never become a minority in our own state."

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