Serbia's ruthless right shows its face: Vojislav Seselj is a hero to the ultra-nationalists but the US brands him as a war criminal, writes Tony Barber, East Europe Editor

Click to follow
VOJISLAV SESELJ, whose Serbian Radical Party made remarkable gains in Sunday's elections, is an ultra-nationalist paramilitary leader whom the United States wants to bring to trial for war crimes.

Prone to dressing in a black shirt, with a pistol stuck in his trousers, Mr Seselj, 38, is believed by Western experts to have supervised some of the most ruthless Serbian military campaigns in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. He is a tall, bear-like man and former sociologist who, as the old Yugoslavia began to disintegrate, proclaimed himself a Duke of the Serbs, with a mission to create an enlarged Serbian state.

Elected to the Serbian parliament in July 1991, he is capable of making the most blood-chilling statements in smooth, seemingly rational language. In a television interview last year, he remarked: 'We are perfecting the art of killing with a rusty shoehorn, so that it will be impossible to determine whether the victim was butchered or died of tetanus.'

The Radicals' paramilitary wing is known as the Chetnik movement, after the Serbian royalist forces that fought in the Yugoslav civil war of the 1940s. To Croats and Muslims, the term Chetnik is a synonym for terrorist, but for Mr Seselj it is a badge of honour. The word has its origins in the Serbian guerrilla bands that fought to liberate Serbia from Ottoman rule in the 19th century.

Mr Seselj was once imprisoned for anti-Communist activities, but after the rise to power in 1987 of the Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic, he developed close ties with the authorities. Their conversion from Yugoslav Communism to authoritarian Serbian nationalism appealed to him. He has also played down his royalist views, partly because the exiled king-in-waiting, Crown Prince Alexander, advocates a liberal, Western-style constitutional monarchy.

Since the Yugoslav wars broke out 18 months ago, Serbian state- controlled television has portrayed Mr Seselj as a military hero. However, the US Secretary of State, Lawrence Eagleburger, named Mr Seselj last week as one of seven commanders and paramilitary fighters who should be put on trial for atrocities, such as massacres of civilians.

It appeared yesterday that at least 25 per cent of those who voted in Sunday's election for the Serbian parliament had cast their ballot for Mr Seselj's party. The Radicals look like having performed at least as well in the election for the Yugoslav parliament, which combines deputies from Montenegro as well as Serbia. The Radicals' gains were all the more surprising as they had conducted a relatively low-key campaign.

In Belgrade, which is generally seen as the most liberal-minded and Westward-looking of Serbian cities, the Radicals took 21 per cent of the vote, according to preliminary results. In Kragujevac, an industrial area south of Belgrade where the opposition parties had also hoped to fare well, the Radicals scored about 33 per cent.

The result means that Mr Seselj and the Radicals are well- placed to become the second-largest party in the Serbian parliament, behind the Socialists (ex- Communists) of Mr Milosevic. The Radicals may try to form a coalition government with the Socialists, with whose militant nationalist programme they have few disagreements.

For moderate Serbs, however, Mr Seselj's success is a demoralising blow: it appears to leave Serbia more isolated than ever on the world stage.

Sarajevo via Riyadh, page 17