It is one of the enduring scenes from the war in Bosnia. Posing for television cameras, a jubilant Biljana Plavsic embraced Zeljko "Arkan" Raznjatovic hours after the notorious paramilitary chieftain had presided over the bloody Serbian seizure of the town of Bijeljina in the spring of 1992.
Then a member of Bosnia's collective presidency, Mrs. Plavsic went on to become a strident advocate of a pure Serb state. At times, her vitriol against non-Serbs exceeded even those of her leader and now indicted war criminal, Radovan Karadzic.
But history has come full circle. Elected president last year of the Serbian Republic, the half of Bosnia awarded to the Bosnian Serbs by the 1995 Dayton peace plan, she is now being embraced by the US and its allies as the best hope of keeping the stalled effort for ethnic reconciliation from collapse.
"We are not supporting her personally," says a Western diplomat. "We are supporting her for what she stands for."
What Plavsic represents is a growing challenge to the corruption-fueled power of Mr. Karadzic, the Bosnian Serbs' wartime president. Restricted to his mountain lair of Pale, east of Sarajevo, by the threat of arrest by NATO, Karadzic has been using frontmen to run the republic's government and obstruct key Dayton provisions since agreeing to depart public life last year.
Bolstered by Western political support, and protected by the NATO Stabilization Force (SFOR), Plavsic is promising democratization, a free media, and an end to the massive corruption through which Karadzic and his acolytes control the war-shattered economy. Her appeal has triggered resignations from the government and the ruling Serbian Democratic Party, or SDS, splintered the police, and won a pledge of neutrality from the Bosnian Serb army chief in her stronghold of Banja Luka, Bosnia's second-largest city.
Expelled from from the SDS, Plavsic plans to launch on Thursday her own party - tentatively called the Serbian People's Union - which she hopes will trounce Karadzic in October parliamentary polls. She promises to end obstructions to the so-called Dayton peace plan of 1995, drawn up to end ethnic conflict. The obstructions have kept the Serbian Republic from its share of the billions of dollars in international reconstruction aid pouring into the adjacent Muslim-Croat federation. But she faces a risky battle.
"The other side may pursue their ends by force. What she has started is very difficult," concedes Dragan Lukac, a police commander who sided with Plavsic after the power struggle erupted in July, when she dismissed Interior Minister Dragan Kijac and dissolved the parliament.
It was Mr. Lukac who led a brazen Aug. 17 raid on the Banja Luka police headquarters that uncovered evidence of bugging of Plavsic's office by Karadzic loyalists and huge stocks of arms. That prompted SFOR troops to take over the department and turn it over to Plavsic loyalists in a dramatic escalation of international intervention on her behalf.
Some uncertainty persists as to the extent of Plavsic's political reincarnation. The former Fulbright scholar, who studied for two years in the US, remains a fervent nationalist. But experts say it is her nationalism and fervent Serbian Orthodox Christian faith that have powered her conversion from Dayton opponent to supporter. Determined to keep her exhausted and destitute people out of another war, she recognizes that the plan is their only recourse should SFOR withdraw as scheduled in July, they say.
"She has gone from being a raving nationalist to being a pragmatic nationalist," the Western diplomat says.
Plavsic understands that "if the Serbian Republic does not solve its problems, its survival will be seriously affected," says Rajko Tomas, a close adviser. "The key to the whole crisis is implementation of the Dayton accords."
It is a realization, Mr. Tomas insists, that is growing among the republic's estimated 600,000 citizens and 400,000 refugees. The extent of Plavsic's support beyond Banja Luka remains untested. What is certain, however, is that the climate is ripe for Plavsic's challenge.
While Karadzic and his supporters build lavish homes and buy luxury cars with the proceeds from pervasive smuggling and other illegal rackets, most Bosnian Serbs are struggling to survive. The region's infrastructure and social services are collapsing. And unemployment has prompted an exodus of young people in search of jobs abroad. Others have stayed on, but in despair.
"We have no jobs and no prospects," says Zoran, a university graduate who fought in Bosnia and Croatia. "Most young people support Biljana because of her fight against corruption and another war. Young people absolutely do not support Pale."
Karadzic's key front man, Momcilo Krajisnik, the Bosnian Serb member of Bosnia's multiethnic federal presidency, has refrained from trying to remove Plavsic by force. His main weapon has been Pale-based state television. But a crude propaganda campaign appears to have been counterproductive. It has met with outrage from the United States and its allies. Carlos Westendorp, the Spanish diplomat who oversees Dayton's civilian aspects, is considering unspecified actions against Pale TV.
Western officials are deeply concerned that Karadzic loyalists could still resort to force, including attacks on SFOR.
Backed by SFOR, Plavsic won the first round with her police takeover. But, the Western diplomat adds: "Pale has now dug themselves in so deep, they are not going to give up easily."