Russian bad boy falls flat during 'ego-trip' to Serbia: Vladimir Zhirinovsky arrives in Subotica with a message he hopes will cement solidarity among 300 million Slavs

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The Independent Online
VLADIMIR ZHIRINOVKSY'S roadshow hit Serbia yesterday with all the impact of a wet snowball. Fewer than 500 people braved the cold grey day to greet their ultra-nationalist Russian 'saviour' before the monument to Jovan the Black, an obscure 16th-century Serbian tsar, in the middle of Subotica's splendid Habsburg square.

The crowd was a far cry from the 'millions' Mr Zhirinovsky expected to greet him when he crossed the Hungarian border into 'sacred Serbia'.

But considering that petrol is expensive for most Serbs and that Subotica is a mainly ethnic Hungarian town far from the Serbian heartland, the turnout was respectable. The crowd was enthusiastic to see the man they believe will stop the international harassment of Serbia.

Mr Zhirinovsky did not disappoint them. Referring to the international sanctions imposed on Serbia for its role in the Bosnian war, Mr Zhirinovsky told the crowd: 'I know you are victims. I know what this blockade means to your lives. I know how many Serbs have suffered. Hundreds of thousands of Serbs have died. But I promise all our enemies will be punished. The time has come to end the humiliation of the Slavs. Now is the time for Russia to rise at last and defend the Serbs.'

Then, quoting a popular Serbian song, he added: 'Together we Serbs and Russians are 300 million strong. We will establish eternal borders in the north, in the south, in the east and in the west.' The crowd responded with applause and chants of: 'Russia-Serbia'. An old woman hugged him as if he were a living icon.

Unlike the other countries that Mr Zhirinovsky has visited, insulted and been thrown out of, Serbia offers a rich political soil for his fiery message of Slavic superiority and ultimate victory.

Serbs share Mr Zhirinovsky's anger and self-pity. Both revel in real or imagined humiliation. Serbs see themselves as the victims of historical conspiracy; Mr Zhirinovsky is convinced that he is the victim of life's deprivations. While he believes world peace is possible only when 'Russian soldiers wash their boots in the Indian Ocean', Serbian hardliners hope the equator will one day divide a greater Serbia in two.

Mr Zhirinovsky's three-day tour of 'Serbian land' - including a visit today to Serb-occupied areas of Bosnia and Croatia - is little more than a political ego-trip for Russia's political bad boy, but for Serbs it is a mission of supreme importance to restore hope to a demoralised country. 'We expect Zhirinovsky's visit will be the beginning of a change in the world's attitude towards Serbia,' said Branko Misljenovic, a railway dispatcher and military volunteer.

Russia, which shares with Serbia a similar language and the Orthodox religion, has always been uneasy with the sanctions imposed on Serbia, but has felt obliged to support them. Nevertheless, Serbs believe Russia will come to their rescue. Serbian leaders have long rooted for the victory of Communist nationalist politicians over the Russian President, Boris Yeltsin. After Mr Zhirinovsky's ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party took 23 per cent of the vote in last month's Russian elections, Serbs believed their champion had arrived at last.

Despite his tough talk, Mr Zhirinovsky cannot deliver his promises. Imminent change in Russian policy in the Balkans is unlikely. Still, his message of 'no surrender' will bring hope to Serbs and comfort to Serbia's President, Slobodan Milosevic.

ZENICA - Three men with British, Danish and French passports are among suspects arrested in connection with the killing of a British aid worker in Bosnia on Friday, police said Reuter reports. A large number of people have been arrested after suspected Muslim bandits hijacked a car carrying British aid workers and shot one dead.

Too much at stake, page 15

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