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WORLD PERSPECTIVE | YUGOSLAVIA

Leader of Brutal Militia Settles Into Mayor's Seat

December 14, 1996|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ZEMUN, Yugoslavia — The new mayor here has already ordered city offices to remain open an extra three hours so that more business can get done.

He routinely receives visits from residents petitioning his help. More than 120 signed up to see him this week.

But don't ask him to talk to the international media. "I have no time for foreign journalists!" he bellows from his office, where his 6-foot-plus frame fills the door.

Lost in the furor caused by nearly four weeks of boisterous political protest against Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's regime, one of Yugoslavia's most infamous ultranationalist extremists is settling easily into his new throne of municipal power.

Vojislav Seselj, whose ruthless paramilitary irregulars invaded numerous villages in Bosnia and Croatia during the Balkan wars, killing or driving away Muslims and Croats, last month became mayor of Zemun, a quiet Belgrade suburb hugging the southern bank of the Danube River.

While opponents of the regime contest election victories they say Milosevic has denied them, Seselj's own brand of opposition defeated the ruling Socialist Party in the Nov. 17 vote in Zemun's municipal races. At the federal parliament level, Seselj's fascist Serbian Radical Party took almost 18% of the vote, trailing by only three percentage points behind the moderate opposition coalition, Zajedno, or Together, which is leading the daily street protests.

Seselj inspires support among those who see him as a strong figure--and fear among those, especially minorities, who nervously anticipate another wave of ethnic-based brutality. Human rights lawyers say the fears are justified given Seselj's history and belief in "Serbian unity" at all cost.

"We stay silent, we survive," said a Roman Catholic priest here. "We are only waiting."

Zemun was once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, as its architecture indicates, and the center of a Croatian and German community until World War II, when most were driven out by victorious partisans. Thousands of Croatian Catholics remained amid a Serbian Orthodox majority. Last year, many Serbs expelled from Croatia before the end of the war in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina ended up in Zemun.

The suburb of about 250,000 people has had frequent periods of tension. A Catholic convent was firebombed in 1991, and obscene graffiti referring to the pope cover a boarded-up Catholic church. Hard-core Croatian nationalists like to cite Zemun as Croatia's eastern border, rankling the Serbs.

Serbs expelled last year from the Krajina region of Croatia, still bitter at their harsh treatment by Croatia and at what they regard as Milosevic's failure to come to their aid, may have helped Seselj win election. And some Serbs in Zemun say they hope that he will restore order and efficiency to government, with measures such as extending City Hall office hours.

A former Sarajevo university professor who once advocated purging all Croats from Yugoslavia, Seselj in his electoral win bespeaks the chaotic state of Serbian politics--and Milosevic has not been slow to make use of the victory.

Milosevic once called Seselj his "favorite" enemy. Especially in the current political storm, Milosevic suddenly finds him convenient. Milosevic uses Seselj as a tool to bludgeon and divide the moderate opposition and as a foil to show that there are worse alternatives than Milosevic.

During the election campaign, Seselj attacked Milosevic as a "criminal traitor" and the Zajedno opposition as "something worse." Milosevic-controlled state television routinely broadcasts the attacks on the opposition (but not those on Milosevic) and, in a veiled warning to those who would be rid of Milosevic, gave ample coverage to Seselj's inauguration.

As Milosevic uses Seselj, Seselj will use his new position as a platform, playing himself off against the increasingly hated regime and the doubted opposition to further his long-standing political goals.

*

"Right now he's sounding more rational than the left or the right," said Nebojsa Curcic, a columnist with the state-run Politika newspaper. "For people who are uneasy about the demonstrations, who see both the government and the opposition as intransigent, only Seselj seems reasonable. But it's a deception, of course--a dangerous one."

Seselj himself sees the choice clearly:

"As far as we are concerned," he told a local newspaper this week, "a 'change' in Serbia means [Milosevic's] Socialists going out, and our Radicals coming in."

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