Rising Ultranationalist Poised To Be a Powerbroker in Serbia
Leading vote-getter Oct. 5, Vojislav Seselj, says he would ignore Dayton peace accord.
Serbia's image needs no further tarnishing. Yet charging into the limelight is ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj.Skip to next paragraph
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Elections Oct. 5 have bolstered the stature of Mr. Seselj, the shrillest of the torchbearers for a "Greater Serbia," a cause that plunged Bosnia into war five years ago.
If Yugoslav Federation President Slobodan Milosevic isn't concerned about this political rival, perhaps he ought to be: He was a mentor to Seselj in his rise to power.
Despite seemingly stormy relations between them, Seselj has proved to be an effective ally, often performing Milosevic's dirty work both at home and in neighboring Bosnia, say observers. Now Seselj is on the verge of attaining true influence in Serbian politics as either president, coalition partner, or opposition leader. As any good charismatic populist, he'll happily settle for the latter, analysts say.
By a narrow margin, Seselj was the leading vote-getter in the election for president of Serbia Oct. 5. But the election was invalidated because fewer than 50 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. A new election must held within 60 days.
"If he stays outside of government, he can continue talking and attacking and taking this position that's popular with the vultures," says Serbian political scientist Nenad Dimitrijevic. "He'll become stronger and stronger."
Indeed, it appears Seselj is already a little too powerful for Milosevic's comfort. The tone of state-controlled radio and television became more hostile toward Seselj after his strong showing in the Sept. 21 preliminary presidential elections. Also in that poll, Seselj's Serbian Radical Party snared 82 of 250 seats in parliament. Milosevic's Socialists, with 110 seats, fell short of a majority and need a coalition.
Seselj and his Serbian Radical Party are poised to either join the Socialists in a coalition or become the leading opposition party.
Seselj has successfully tapped into growing right-wing disenchantment with Milosevic, who holds the office of president of the Yugoslav federation, which comprises Serbia and Montenegro. During the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, Milosevic tried and failed to unite Serb-held lands in Bosnia and Croatia with Serbia to create "Greater Serbia." Since then, he has been unable to rekindle the economy during three years of devastating United Nations sanctions.
Pursuing 'Greater Serbia'
Seselj's fiery rhetoric has also won over the 600,000-plus ethnic Serb refugees from Bosnia and Croatia who live in limbo in the Yugoslav federation. The refugees denounce Milosevic as a traitor for betraying their interests and signing the 1995 Dayton peace accords.
"We shall realize the boundaries of Greater Serbia when we assume power at the federal level," Seselj told the Serbian media recently. "As Serbia is now, as a federal unit, it does not have the competence to initiate this. But as a political party, we shall never give up this goal."
Seselj and Milosevic pursued "Greater Serbia" together in the early stages of the war in neighboring Bosnia and Croatia. Milosevic reportedly winked at Seselj as his notorious paramilitary force funneled arms and cash to Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia. Later, Serbian Radicals pitched in on the battlefield.
But the alliance cracked in 1993 when Milosevic ostensibly turned into a peacemaker, attempting to ease the year-old UN sanctions strangling his country. Seselj accused him of betraying Serb interests and became his fiercest critic. Milosevic later had a slew of Radicals arrested for war crimes.
In 1995, Milosevic jailed Seselj for four months for demonstrating against Milosevic's policies in Bosnia. Seselj retaliated last year, threatening to incriminate Milosevic - and perhaps himself - if Milosevic permitted indicted Bosnian Serb war criminals to be extradited to the UN War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague.