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Seselj Vows to Take on the Mafia

Ultra-nationalist plays on despair over economy and organised crime to bolster his election prospects.
By Bojan Toncic

Under the slogan "Serbia in Safe Hands" and with the support of Slobodan Milosevic from his Scheveningen prison cell, Vojislav Seselj, leader of the extreme-right Serbian Radical Party, SRS, has been determined to make an impact in run-up to the September 29 presidential poll.


Despite being under investigation by The Hague for his alleged involvement in the wars in Bosnia and Croatia, Seselj's popularity is rising at a tremendous pace, judging by August polls conducted by the respected Strategic Marketing agency in Belgrade.


Seselj currently is third in the presidential race with the backing of 12 per cent of the electorate, a big advance on the 4 per cent he scored in May. Analysts attribute the rise to growing dissatisfaction with the poor economy and price increases and the new government's failure to deal with organised crime.


An additional reason for his rise in support is the backing of nationalists in Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia SPS, although the party's leadership has disobeyed the most famous Scheveningen prisoner and lent its support to the well-known actor Velimir Bata Zivojinovic.


Svetlana Logar, director of Strategic Marketing, said Seselj's chances of reaching the second round in the election are slim. She said his strong showing was based on the public's declining interest in the left and diminishing hopes that anyone can revive Serbia's failing economy.


Seselj's odyssey on the Serbian political scene has always been characterised by extreme chauvinism and xenophobia, anti-Americanism and support for the persecution of people of different opinions and other ethnic groups.


Born in 1954 in Sarajevo, he graduated in law at the city's university. At 24, he gained a doctorate in political sciences - the youngest to do so in former Yugoslavia - with a critique of fascism and militant movements.


While assistant professor in Sarajevo University, Seselj was arrested in 1984 for threatening to "overthrow the social order". The charge was based on an unpublished manuscript police took from his apartment. He was found guilty in a notorious trial and sentenced to eight years in prison - an unusually harsh penalty. The support of Yugoslav dissidents and international pressure led to the sentence being commuted to four years. In the end, Seselj spent only 18 months behind bars.


After his release, he came to Belgrade, where he received help from Dobrica Cosic and Vuk Draskovic, who were then known dissidents. He became a favourite of the Serb nationalist circle around Cosic, the man widely seen as the founding father of the Greater Serbian idea. Seselj established the Serbian Chetnik Movement in 1990, and the SRS the following year.


At the beginning of war in former Yugoslavia, Seselj's party backed several paramilitary formations active in Croatia. At the height of the fighting there in 1991, he was awarded the title of Chetnik vojvoda (duke) by an émigré Chetnik leader Momcilo Djujic, a defender of Serbs in the Croatian Krajina during the Second World War who was accused of perpetrating crimes against Croats.


Seselj's supporters were involved in one of the first ethnic conflicts in Croatia in the border town of Borovo Selo, when they attacked a Croatian police detachment. More than 20 Croatian officers were killed in the bloody affray.


During the conflict in Croatia, Seselj frequently visited the front line in uniform, bearing weapons. On many occasions, he publicly called for Serbia's western border to be established on the Karlobag-Virovitica line, which would involve Serbia absorbing almost two-thirds of Croatian territory.


At the time, Seselj cemented his notoriety when he suggested that Croat throats should be slit with rusty spoons.


Human rights groups in Belgrade, including the Helsinki Committee, say SRS members played a key role in the ethnic cleansing of the predominantly ethnic Croat village of Hrtkovci in northern Serbia.


In an interview with Blic News recently, Seselj said around 10, 000 SRS members fought alongside local Serb forces in Bosnia, insisting, however, that none of the former were accused of war crimes.


On the eve of NATO's intervention in Yugoslavia in 1999, he declared that not one alliance boot would ever walk on "sacred Kosovo land" and that if it bombed the province local Albanians would disappear.


If Seselj becomes president of Serbia, he promises to free the country of the mafia and arrest the Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic, his opponent in the presidential elections Miroljub Labus and the governor of the National Bank of Yugoslavia, NBJ, Mladjan Dinkic. He links all three to organised crime at the election rallies he holds throughout Serbia.


In an election broadcast on Radio Belgrade on September 17, his party chose to play patriotic songs written by the SRS rather than present its election manifesto. The songs praised Seselj and his followers and appealed to Serbian nationalism with vows to recapture Serbian lands, including the Dinara mountains that delineate the border between Croatia and Bosnia.


An estimated 20, 000 people attended a SRS rally on Tuesday in the Vojvodina capital of Novi Sad. Many of Seselj's supporters brandished posters of the two leading Bosnian Serb war crimes suspects. "Seselj is the only man capable of protecting Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic," said one of his aides to the cheering crowd.


Much of Seselj's election rhetoric has been heard before. The only new element in this campaign is a reversal of his long-standing anti-western views. "I am the one that the West respects the most," he said, with no sense of irony, in a recent rally in Soko Banja.


Bojan Toncic is a journalist working with the Belgrade daily Danas.


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