Hardline leader defeats Panic

THE Serbian radical nationalist leader, Vojislav Seselj, flexed his new-found political muscles yesterday, rallying Yugoslavia's parliament to pass a vote of no-confidence in the country's amiable Prime Minister, Milan Panic. It was Mr Seselj's second big political victory and Mr Panic's second humiliating defeat in a week.

The Chamber of Republics, the upper house of parliament, voted against Mr Panic by 30 votes to five only hours after the lower house, the Chamber of Citizens, passed a smiliar vote of no confidence by 95 votes to two with 12 abstentions. The vote signalled the end of Mr Panic's political career. Studio B, an independent televion station, said Radoje Kontic, a former Yugoslav vice- president, was named as acting prime minister until a new parliament is formed next month.

Mr Panic, a Yugoslav-American millionaire who became prime minister last July, was defeated in his bid for the Serbian presidency last week by the incumbent, Slobodan Milosevic. In November he had lost a similar confidence motion, but was saved when it was overturned by the upper chamber. After his defeat by Mr Milosevic, however, Mr Panic's advisers gave their boss little chance of surviving any new parliamentary moves against him.

Yesterday's nationalist legislative coup was less significant for marking the demise of Mr Panic than for underscoring the growing power of Mr Seselj, who has been accused of war crimes by the US. He emerged as a serious political force after his radical Serbian Party won the second-largest number of seats in Serbian parliamentary elections last week behind Mr Milosevic's Socialist Party. He is widely expected to join a coalition with Mr Milosevic in the new Serbian parliament, expected to convene next month.

A ruthless nationalist hardliner and paramilitary leader, Mr Seselj promised on Monday that he would oust Mr Panic, whom he has accused of treason and betrayal. During yesterday's session, Mr Seselj dominated the political stage and cajoled the lower house to support the no-confidence vote against a traitor whom he said 'demanded the occupation of the country' by insisting on allowing foreign forces in Yugoslavia. He also accused Mr Panic of stealing dollars 300,000 ( pounds 200,000) from the country during official visits to the United States, China, Germany and to Geneva for the Yugoslav peace talks. 'If you don't vote no confidence you are giving Mr Panic a chance to do even more damage,' he told the chamber.

Mr Seselj's habit of dividing Serbs into traitors or patriots is starting to worry liberal nationalist leaders. At a press conference yesterday, a centrist opposition leader, Vuk Draskovic, accused Mr Seselj of starting a witch-hunt since his electoral success. 'If you raise your voice to stop war and ask for peace you are accused of betraying Serbia,' he said, adding: 'There are people here who would not admit publicly that they love their mother; that they have two legs; that they are a member of the human race. To have to admit you love Serbia is not part of democracy, it is psychopathy.'

Many analysts believe Mr Seselj rose to political prominence precisely because of Western pressure on Serbs over the war in Bosnia. Western threats have only stiffened Serbian resistance to outside pressure and have helped Mr Seselj and Mr Milosevic to consolidate their positions with a fiery brand of nationalism that has managed to reduce political issues to a struggle between patriotism and treason.

'The West does not realise that it is bringing Seselj to us,' Milovan Perovic, an insurance executive, said. 'Whatever they do they reinforce the complex of a wounded lion.'

Monday's news that the US has warned Mr Milosevic of the military consequences of any 'destabilising acts' by Serbia in Kosovo is likely to be seen in the same light as other threats and will only strengthen nationalist resolve. Although there was no official comment on the reports, Tanjug news agency reported that Yugoslav army officers had met Mr Milosevic and the Yugoslav President, Dobrica Cosic, to discuss 'matters of national defence'.