New Star of the Serbian Right

Zeljko Raznatovic, also known as Arkan, pushes his dark background aside and promises his supporters `everything'

HE aspires to all the glitz of a US-style election stump: media hype, a huge campaign war chest, and rallies featuring free performances by pop music idols.

He has a motorcade and a press bus. His Madison Avenue-size campaign promises proclaim: ``Our program is one in which mothers will have everything; we will give everything to officers and soldiers; we will have everything: milk, bread. Cakes, even.''

And he has a big American-sounding campaign theme: ``We want ... one beautiful, peaceful land called the United States of Serbia.''

Never mind that Serb's seizure of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina has destroyed a country, left hundreds of thousands of people dead, uprooted millions of others, and reduced millions more to penury in a maelstrom of ethnic hatred with no end in sight.

Welcome to the life and times of Zeljko Raznatovic, better known as ``Arkan'' - leader of the Party of Serbian Unity, jail-break expert, former secret police agent, warlord, suspected war criminal, and reputed millionaire crime boss. New boy on the block

A 42-year-old with cherubic cheeks that enhance an air of boyish innocence, Mr. Raznatovic has emerged as the new standard-bearer of Serbia's far-right in Dec. 19 snap elections for the Serbian Assembly.

Widely perceived as creatures of President Slobodan Milosevic, Raznatovic and his party are believed to have been fielded by the Serbian ruler to drain votes away from his former champion of ultra-nationalism, Vojislav Seselj, the leader of the Serbian Radical Party and rival paramilitary chief.

Mr. Seselj's party won second place in assembly polls last year and provided the support that allowed Mr. Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia, which took the largest bloc of seats but fell short of a majority, to form a minority government.

But Seselj and Milosevic fell out when the radical leader challenged his former patron by calling a no-confidence vote in his party in October. Milosevic dissolved the assembly before the vote could be held, called the upcoming elections, and turned to Raznatovic.

In addition to diverting support from Seselj, analysts say that Raznatovic is also useful because his rabid nationalism offers a contrast to Milosevic and the socialists that reinforces their cosmetic change to a more conciliatory image adopted to obtain a lifting of United Nations sanctions.

Raznatovic first won notoriety as the commander of the ``Serbian Volunteer Guard'' and ``Serbian Tigers,'' the most dreaded and highly trained of the paramilitary bands that Milosevic nurtured as part of the territorial conquests he oversaw in Bosnia and Croatia.

Used as ruthless shock troops, Raznatovic's fighters played a prominent role in the devastating siege of the eastern Croatian city of Vukovar and spearheaded ``ethnic cleansing'' assaults against Muslim Slavs in the northern Bosnian towns of Bijeljina and Zvornik.

The United States and international human rights groups have named Raznatovic as a suspected war criminal, alleging his involvement in mass killings of non-Serb war prisoners and civilians.

In addition to being a likely defendant before the UN war crimes tribunal, Raznatovic is reportedly sought by Interpol for crimes he allegedly committed during the 1980s, including armed robbery, in several western European countries. ``I don't know if there is a warrant for me,'' replies Raznatovic, at ease as he spoke recently aboard his press bus. ``I know they are hounding me for war crimes.''

``I should ask them to go to Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Vietnam, and Angola,'' he says, alternating between Serbian and proficient English. ``These were places where war crimes were committed. I committed no war crimes,'' he says. ``We were defending our homes, and our families.''

Published reports say Raznatovic, the son of a Yugoslav Army officer, began in Belgrade as a petty hood, with then continued a spate of unsavory activities around Western Europe including three prison escapes. He eventually returned to Belgrade and opened an expensive ice-cream parlor opposite Red Star soccer stadium. It became a hangout for soccer fans, whom Raznatovic organized into a club, with himself as president. The club served as a recruiting center for his paramilitary force.

During a trial in the 1980s on a charge of attacking a police officer, he admitted to being an agent of former Yugoslavia's communist secret police. News accounts say he worked as an assassin during a crackdown on anti-communist expatriates.

Detractors claim Raznatovic, protected by Milosevic, used his paramilitary band to build a vast criminal empire allegedly involved in everything from pillaging war booty to the smuggling of goods proscribed by UN economic sanctions.

``Arkan does all the dirty work for the regime,'' asserts Vladan Vasiljevic of the Institute for Criminal Research. ``He is involved in the most profitable businesses of organized crime.''

``You will hear 1,000 stories about me,'' Raznatovic retorts. ``It's up to you whether you believe them or not.''

The war crimes allegations and his alleged ill-gotten gains and reputed power have helped enhance among many Serbs his hero-like status celebrated by Milosevic-controlled Belgrade television, rock songs, and music videos.

``He is the best Serb. The most beautiful, the biggest, the best,'' exclaims Mikailo Markovic, as he and some 5,000 other people awaited Raznatovic's arrival at a rally in a grimy, unheated sports hall in the industrial town of Loznica. Political rise

Raznatovic first embarked in politics by leading a five-candidate slate in the southern province of Kosovo in last year's snap assembly polls. His victory was guaranteed by a boycott by Kosovo's independence-seeking ethnic Albanian majority.

Although he and his cohorts ran as independents, analysts have little doubt they were put up by Milosevic to intimidate the ethnic Albanians, who Raznatovic says should be deported enmass unless they pledge ``loyalty'' to the state.

Analysts believe Raznatovic saw in assembly membership the legitimacy denied by his past and the sanctuary of legislative immunity should he be sought by the UN war crimes tribunal.

It gave him a national pulpit in which to sharpen his chauvinist credentials.

Raznatovic has embraced this new election with verve, launching the most extensive and expensive of any campaign.

He refuses to disclose the cost. But, he appears unfettered by the terrible hardships that war and UN sanctions have wrought on Serbia, leading many to conclude that he is tapping profits from his alleged underworld empire.

His party, the hierarchy of which is thought to comprise key paramilitary underlings, is running for all 250 assembly seats.

He has exchanged his camouflage fatigues and guns for designer suits, power ties and a diamond-crusted wristwatch in keeping with the image of the prominent businessman he claims to be.

He tells foreign journalists, who he once shunned, that he has ended all his paramilitary activities. ``I am a father of four and I want peace,'' he insists.

His face adorns lamp posts, storefronts, and walls in Belgrade and throughout the country, while his TV ads air constantly. And, every day, he and a retinue of bodyguards and camp followers sally from their Belgrade headquarters for rallies.

Slick by Serbian standards, the rallies resemble a cross between a cheesy 1950s rock 'n roll revival show and an evangelical crusade emceed by David Duke.

Despite the relative lavishness amid sanctions-fueled penury and blight, there are major doubts as to how many votes Raznatovic will win: At least half of his audiences are children and teenagers drawn by the free music.

He confidently predicts his party will capture up to 35 seats.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.