YUGOSLAVIA: Fascism Knocking On Serbia’s Door

Vesna Peric Zimonjic

BELGRADE, Jul 29 1997 (IPS) - Prominent Belgrade lawyer Nikola Barovic merely looks like he’s been in a car crash — last week he had to have his face, jaw and nose surgically reconstructed.

But his injuries were down to one intemperate act; he threw a glass of water over Serbian ultra-nationalist leader Vojislav Seselj in the midst of a live debate on Serbia’s BK TV. The ganglord had been reeling off a monologue of insults aimed at Barovic

and his late father, also a prominent Belgrade lawyer.

After the show’s sudden end Seselj and his bodyguard cornered him in a studio rest room. The bodyguard attacked Barovic, kicking him several times in the face, breaking both cheekbones, his jaw and his nose in several places. Only then did Seselj call a halt, saying: “That’s enough. That will teach him a lesson”.

Quizzed last week by reporters in the Serbian parliament a smiling Seselj was unrepentant. “Barovic slipped on a banana peel and fell down some stairs,” he said.

The authorities turn a blind eye. “I know nothing about that incident,” said Serbian justice minister Arandjel Markicevic. Dragan Tomic, speaker of the Serbian parliament said the same.

“Nikola Barovic left BK TV with a bloody face, while Seselj left the studio with a clear face of a fascist,” commented the daily Nasa Borba newspaper, drawing a blunt link between “Seselj, the little corporal,” and the methods of German Nazi leader A dolf Hitler.

“Serbia will become a Nazi state if it allows Seselj and his ilk to make the rules” agrees Vesna Pesic, leader of the opposition Civic Alliance party. “If the public attorney’s office remains silent about this case, we should all consider the state di rectly responsible for what happened to Nikola Barovic.”

But the Nazi bully-boy tactics do not stop there. Seselj, a MP and leader of the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS) is also putting his thugs’ boots to work in the Zemun district of the capital Belgrade, where he is head of the municipal counc il.

In an extraordinary echo of the ‘ethnic cleansing’ campaigns staged in neighbouring Bosnia-Hercegovina, Seselj has been using his municipal powers in Zemun to evict non-Serbs, backed up with active harassment to send them on their way.

“With the blessing of the regime and cooperation of its police, he (Seselj) is turning Zemun into an ethnically clean Bavarian beerhouse, with the silent approval of the ruling Socialists,” snapped Nasa Borba. “It will not take long for fascism from Z emun to spread like cancer all over Serbia, with the generous help of Seselj’s masters.”

When Seselj’s officials turned on them and the police failed to act, the Barbalic family turned to Barovic to help them challenge Seselj’s eviction orders in the courts. The two had appeared on BK TV to discuss the issue.

The case has filled the pages of the Belgrade independent media for weeks, with NGOs and human rights groups fighting to prove Seselj’s Zemun policies are illegal.

“Zemun was and is only a testing ground for Seselj, where he can try the limits of the state’s patience,” Zoran Sekulic, editor-in-chief of independent FoNet news agency. “He is doing exactly the same with the Barovic incident.”

Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic and his Socialist party have a deep and complex relationship with Seselj’s ultranationalist, openly racist SRS. Milosevic used to call Seselj his “favourite opposition politician”.

When the old Yugoslavia fragmented in 1991 and Milosevic’s stepped up his plan to carve a ‘Greater Serbia’ out of his country and parts of others, SRS paramilitaries were among the first to commit atrocities in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina.

Seselj went on state TV in 1992 waving a list of independent journalists and public figures who opposed Milosevic’s war, calling for the “traitors of the (Serb) nation to be removed,” a call read as the threat it undeniably was.

“SRS helped Milosevic’s Socialists in all their dirty work over the last six years,” says journalist Milanka Saponja, “acting whenever the Socialists did not want to do something in public. He is clearly doing it now.”

But many of the wartime SRS ‘blackshirt’ death squads members that used to operate in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina are still around and ready to act against his Serb opponents. A letter from U.N. human rights rapporteur Elizabeth Rehn to Serbia’s inter ior minister raised the issue of Seselj’s racist policies but has been so far ignored.

Seselj appears almost invincible, and remains a likely candidate for the presidency of Serbia in place of the outgoing Milosevic, who has stepped up as president of the Yugoslav federation that still links Serbia with tiny Montenegro.

And the ganglord’s growing power now challenges Milosevic’s own Socialists. Seselj’s simple message of hate is gaining ground in a country in economic collapse, with the dream of Greater Serbia in shambles and the bitter taste of lost wars everywhere.

The latest survey by Belgrade pollsters Mark Plan gave more support to the SRS than any other single party, including Milosevic’s. Of 2,328 polled across Serbia, 15 percent would vote for Seselj and his SRS if the parliamentary and presidential elections were held now. The Socialists took just 14 percent.

And though 36 percent rejected all the names offered, 17.5 percent of the polled picked Seselj as their favourite political name, Milosevic ranked second and opposition leader Vuk Draskovic third.

“With his simple and understandable message, the leader of SRS is talking to a third of the voters in Serbia, the illiterate third of people who really want to be guided by a ‘strong hand’,” says Saponja. “The silent tolerance by the regime only helps his rise.”

“The people of Serbia are tired of everything that has happened to them in the last few years,” says sociologist Vera Mirceski, “apathy is the prevailing feeling among them.

“They think that the decisive and strong-handed SRS is the solution to their problems.” she adds. “As for democracy, they have not yet reached that point yet.”

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