Serbia's image needs no further tarnishing. Yet charging into the limelight is ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj.
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.
Regardless of the presidential outcome and coalition negotiations, Seselj is widely feared for one thing: possibly resuming a reign of terror he unleashed in the town of Zemun since becoming its mayor in November, say Serb political opponents. That means more bad news for the non-Serbs living here in Zemun, an ethnically diverse suburb of Belgrade.
This summer, Seselj allowed at least four ethnic Croat families to be expelled from their homes to make room for Serb refugees. The New York-based group Human Rights Watch condemned the expulsions. Later, a four-year-old Croat boy was denied entry to a kindergarten.
'We're just chauvinists'
Seselj refused several requests for an interview, but was recently quoted in the Serbian media as saying, "We're not fascists. We're just chauvinists who hate Croats."
While Seselj has mostly targeted Croats for harassment, he has created a climate increasingly hostile to anyone non-Serb.
This summer, a former synagogue was converted into a nightclub. The synagogue had been sold to the Communist government in 1961, after some four-fifths of Zemun's Jews perished in the Holocaust. But it had been a state-protected historical monument, with a long-standing agreement it would be used only for cultural purposes.
Soon after, the small local Jewish community was dealt a second blow. Nine headstones in the Jewish cemetery were desecrated, allegedly by youths.
Around town, Seselj, a tall, gangly blond, is often seen toting a pistol, surrounded by a handful of bodyguards. He seems to relish his tough-guy image.
Most Zemun residents seem afraid to speak out, as Seselj brooks no political opposition. Prior to a planned protest by the recently formed Alliance of Independent Citizens of Zemun, the office of one organizer was fire-bombed.
"God help us if he becomes president," says alliance vice president Ljubomir Rankov, whose print shop was partially damaged in a July blast.
"He said Zemun is an experiment for how he would run the country. That means he would eliminate everyone who doesn't think like him," Mr. Rankov says.
NATO is 'an occupying force'
The new mayor is nurturing a cult of personality. He erected a new kiosk in Zemun's sleepy downtown immediately after taking office, lining its windows with the 50-odd books he has supposedly authored.
Titles like "We Shall Rule for 100 Years" are doing brisk sales, according to kiosk operator Dejan Drageljevic, as are the two folk-music tapes dedicated to him. They carry odes like "Good Morning, Mr. President" and "Vojislav, Our Savior."
A videotape on sale highlights the visit to Seselj made by French nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen. Seselj has also hosted Russian Vladimir Zhirinovsky, in a display of right-wing Slavic solidarity.
Mr. Drageljevic, the kiosk operator, is a Seselj fan.
"Seselj also has his good side," he says. "The streets are cleaner, the garbage is collected more often, and the city administration runs more smoothly."
There is growing international pressure for Milosevic to get rid of Seselj. With Milosevic's control of the police, Army, and electronic news media, say observers, it should be easy enough to do.
Yet Milosevic still may find Seselj useful. Next to him, Milosevic can appear to be a moderate.
Take the current political crisis in the Bosnian Serb Republic, the Serb-run part of Bosnia. Seselj describes NATO peacekeepers as an "occupying force" and calls on Bosnian Serbs to mount a "Palestinian-style" resistance. As president, he says, he would ignore the Dayton peace accords.
"I don't think we could work with Mr. Seselj," says US envoy to the Balkans Robert Gelbard. "He is undemocratic; I think he is a fascist. So as far as I am concerned, Seselj represents worsening, polarization backwards, darkness."
Milosevic, meanwhile, is under international pressure to back the moderates among the Bosnian Serbs.
"Seselj has always seen it as useful to play the regime's double game," says Dimitrijevic, the political scientist. "They use him, but he thinks he also uses them. And at one point, he thinks he'll win."