Nationalist Serb moves from fringe to seat of power Radical could one day rule Yugoslavia

January 11, 1993|By Dusko Doder | Dusko Doder,Contributing Writer

BELGRADE -- He seemed a somewhat comic figure, a gangling man with a boyish face who liked to wear fatigues and a revolver strapped to his belt.

His followers, sporting long beards and Serbian hats, whooped and fired automatic weapons in the air to cheer their leader, the peculiar, self-styled "Chetnik Duke" Vojislav Seselj.

He advocated the creation of a Greater Serbia and demanded expulsions of all non-Serbs from Serbian lands.

It was a common scene in the months that preceded the outbreak of Yugoslavia's civil war. Unwisely, few people paid attention.

Like incongruous scenes from old films, the ominous gatherings seemed to have no relevance to the late 20th century. Balkan RTC politics fought by private nationalist armies and guerrilla groups were supposed to be a thing of the past. Mr. Seselj and his paramilitary Chetniks were on the extreme and lunatic fringes of society.

Two weeks ago, Mr. Seselj emerged as the new power in Serbia and the most likely successor to strongman Slobodan Milosevic if he should ever fall.

His Radical Party took 27 percent of the votes in the Dec. 20 elections; Mr. Milosevic's ruling Socialists saw their share of the vote drop sharply to 40 percent. At 38, Mr. Seselj has become a key power broker in Belgrade.

His impact in Parliament was immediate. His wild and slanderous speech forced a no-confidence vote against the moderate Prime Minister Milan Panic.

Mr. Seselj accused him of all sins, including treason, and said Mr. Panic and five members of his Cabinet should be arrested.

Mr. Seselj makes no bones about his radical ambitions. He wants to expel more than 300,000 ethnic Albanians from the southern Kosovo province and pack off another 100,000 Croats to Croatia in a population transfer arrangement to be made with the Croatian government.

The emergence of Mr. Seselj is a phenomenon linked to the rise of militant nationalism that followed communism's collapse in Eastern Europe.

His career has been advanced by Mr. Milosevic, who used him and his Chetniks to help destroy moderate opinion in Serbia and to try to seize back Serb-inhabited lands in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Chetniks have been involved in the civil war and "ethnic cleansing" campaigns there.

It is an odd alliance. Mr. Milosevic, leader of the Serbian Communists, changed the name to Socialists after the fall of communism and adopted a strong nationalistic platform. Mr. Seselj is a political scientist and university professor who became a political dissident during the communist regime and spent more than a year in jail. ("We sponsored him," said an Amnesty International worker. "He was one of our prisoners of conscience, but that's something we don't particularly want to highlight.")

Mr. Seselj's two doctoral theses revealed a lot about his philosophy. One dealt with "The Essence of Fascism and Militarism"; the other discussed the nation-in-arms concept as the basis of Marxist defense strategy.

The collapse of the communist regime gave Mr. Seselj the opportunity to try putting some of his notions into practice.

As an aspiring politician two years ago, he came upon the idea of reviving a 19th century nationalist movement known as the Chetniks.

Having established his own private army, he then took over the name and leadership of the Radical Party, which is an old Serbian party of which several distinguished 19th century politicians were members.

Chetniks were paramilitary groups organized shortly after the Kingdom of Serbia won autonomy from Turkey at the beginning of the 19th century. They operated inside Turkish territory along the borders, trying to seize more territory. They were always linked to the Serbian army, though authorities always denied any ties with them.

With the creation of Yugoslavia in 1918, there was no longer a need for the Chetniks because the Kingdom of Serbia had a large state that included Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia.

The Chetniks were revived in 1941 when the Germans attacked Yugoslavia and defeated the Yugoslav army. Serbian officers and soldiers withdrew to the mountains to mount an armed resistance. Their leader, Gen. Drazha Mihailovic, was an important symbol for Western propagandists.

The pro-Allies Chetniks and Croat fascist Ustasha guerrillas fought each other during the war. Both were guilty of massacres and torture similar to the atrocities committed in the current Balkan war.

But Josip Broz Tito, then a Communist partisan, outmaneuvered General Mihailovic and the five other "dukes," as the Chetnik leaders were known. General Mihailovic's objective was more a preservation of the Serbian population than Marshal Tito's all-out struggle against the Germans. Western support switched to Marshal Tito.

Mr. Seselj traveled to the United States in 1990 to see one of the last Chetnik dukes, Momcilo Dujic, who conferred the title of "duke" on him.

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