No one likely to win today's election in Serbia Low turnout is expected to nullify vote for two in presidential runoff

October 05, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Emerging from a television appearance, presidential candidate Vojislav Seselj was in no mood to hear criticism from a local human rights attorney. "You're a dead man," Seselj is reported to have told the attorney, Nikola Barovic, once out of camera range.

Seselj's bodyguard then proceeded to pummel and kick Barovic, leaving the man's face a swollen mess, witnesses said. Later, an unrepentant Seselj explained that the attorney had simply slipped on a banana peel -- "several times."

Today, Seselj, a xenophobic nationalist and former paramilitary commander, competes in a two-man runoff to become the next president of Serbia. He reached the race thanks to a surprising surge by his Radical Party in elections last month, capitalizing on anti-West paranoia and widespread disillusion with politics in Yugoslavia.

Known for brandishing pistols in Parliament and spitting on his opponents, Seselj dealt an unexpected blow to his one-time ally, the powerful Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, in the vote. He forced Milosevic's proxy, Zoran Lilic, into today's presidential runoff and denied Milosevic's Socialist Party a majority in the Serbian Parliament for the first time in more than a decade.

And in neighboring Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb-controlled half of Bosnia, the Radical Party also pulled off an upset in last month's Bosnian municipal elections -- defeating in several cities the nationalist party led by the similarly unsavory Radovan Karadzic, an indicted war-crimes suspect.

Seselj, 43, has not been publicly indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. But his Serbian Chetnik "volunteers," marching under black flags emblazoned with skulls and crossbones, were responsible for especially nasty cases of "ethnic cleansing" -- the ejecting, principally, of non-Serbs from Serbian-controlled areas by threats and violence -- in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia at the start of the wars that triggered the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia.

Because of that background, Western embassies refuse to deal with him. Belgraders draw Hitler-style mustaches on his campaign-poster pictures.

Serbian election rules, in the end, may block Seselj from becoming president. If less than 50 percent of the electorate turns out to vote today, the election process starts over.

Given the widespread apathy and disgust in Serbia, a low turnout is likely.

Serbia would be left without a president indefinitely, creating a power vacuum that Milosevic can be expected to fill.

Even so, the damage has been done to Milosevic's Socialists.

Seselj in many ways was a creation of Milosevic -- someone to do the dirty work in the war while Milosevic kept his hands clean and, later, a useful foil against whom Milosevic could appear a moderate statesman.

Now analysts here wonder if Milosevic's creation has become his Frankenstein's monster.

Diplomats say the Milosevic electoral machine had carefully redrawn districts, changed vote-count rules and, it is alleged, tinkered with registration lists to ensure an absolute parliamentary majority for the Socialists.

But no one got an absolute majority in the Sept. 21 vote, and the Socialists for the first time will be forced to share power -- possibly with the demanding Radicals.

Seselj and his Radical Party owe their dramatic -- many would say alarming -- success in part to a sharper turn to the right and inward by Serbian voters who are disillusioned with the corruption surrounding Milosevic but who remain resentful of the West.

Seselj's success is also helped by the utter collapse of the more moderate opposition that last winter inspired daily anti-Milosevic demonstrations but that today is fractured beyond repair.

A coldly calculating social demagogue, Seselj has skillfully kept his message to voters simple.

While other opposition politicians seem to spend more time plotting ways to stab each other in the back, Seselj appeals directly to Serbs' sense of patriotism, nationalism and paranoia.

He vows to fight crime, raise pensions and salaries and expel Albanians or other minorities who refuse to be "loyal citizens."

He promised to deploy five of his paramilitary Chetnik divisions in the restive Kosovo region, dominated by ethnic Albanians, to "restore order."

He wants to rename Yugoslavia with the ethnically exclusive name of Greater Serbia.

For the past year, Seselj has been mayor of a large Belgrade suburb, Zemun, where he raffles away land to war veterans, invalids and other deserving citizens.

In Zemun, he also showed what many say is his true mettle by expelling a Croatian family whom he claimed had no right to live in Serbia. It sent a chilling message.

Born in Sarajevo, now the Muslim-dominated capital of Bosnia, Seselj taught at the University of Sarajevo and was imprisoned by Communist rulers in the 1980s, a brutal experience that is said to have affected him profoundly. His extremism landed him in jail frequently after moving to Belgrade.

Seselj broke with Milosevic -- at least publicly -- after Milosevic abandoned the cause of the Bosnian Serbs who were fighting to rid their territory of non-Serbs.

"I've sustained him in power as long as he was leading the just policy," Seselj said. "The moment he changed, I moved against him."

Pub Date: 10/05/97

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