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Balkan Report: February 15, 2000

15 February 2000, Volume 4, Number 13

Seselj Attacks Serbian Civil Society. Representatives of Serbia's independent and private media agreed in Belgrade on 14 February to boycott "until further notice" statements by Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Vojislav Seselj and his Radical Party. The move was prompted by recent statements by Seselj that were extreme even by the standards of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia.

Seselj has long been known for his outspoken criticism of just about anyone who disagrees with him. His Radical Party reflects his nationalistic, xenophobic, and anti-Western views. During the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession, he not only talked tough but sent his own paramilitaries into the fray to loot, burn, and kill. In recent years, the Radicals have been in a coalition government with Milosevic and the die-hard communist party of Milosevic's wife, Mira Markovic.

The statements that provoked the stiff reaction from the independent media came in a Belgrade press conference on 10 February. In brief, Seselj accused people in civil society of being Western agents, who deserve to be "liquidated." When questioned by a journalist from the well-known private radio station B2-92, he replied:

"What is [B2-92]? I haven't heard about it; is it registered? Minister, is there something like that?

"[We will respond] against all those who act following instructions from the West, who receive money from the Americans and their allies in order to act against [Milosevic's] Yugoslavia.... Now the gloves are off.... He who lives by the sword may also die by the sword--and all of you should keep this in mind. Don't think that we will let you kill us like rabbits, or that we will [coddle you]....

"Take care, you from B2-92 and other treacherous media outlets. You can't really think that you can escape possible liquidation by us. You are very wrong."

Seselj warned that it is the journalist --not a prominent politician like himself-- who "should be afraid. You work for a treacherous broadcaster." When the journalist denied that the station is "treacherous," Seselj replied: "So, it is not treacherous. Very well. You can prove afterwards that it is not." When the journalist asked: "After what?" the reply was:

"After something. You will see. The gloves are off. You kill statesmen like rabbits here [see below--ed.].... He who works for the Americans must suffer the consequences. What consequences? The worst possible. You are working against your own country, you are paid by American money to destroy your country. You are traitors, you are the worst. There is nothing worse than you! You are worse than any kind of criminals!"

Seselj also named the Belgrade dailies "Danas," "Blic," "Glas javnosti," and "Novosti" as belonging to the class of "treacherous media." For good measure, he added: "Stirring up chaos and unrest, and destabilizing Yugoslavia is the main goal of the Western agents. These are criminals from the domestic underworld, traitor political parties, and the puppet regimes of the Republika Srpska and Montenegro."

Referring to the recent assassination of Defense Minister Pavle Bulatovic, Seselj noted that the minister did not have any known enemies and was not linked to the underworld (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 8 February 2000). Those facts, Seselj concluded, show that Bulatovic must have been killed in an "assassination attempt against Yugoslavia primarily by agents of the U.S., Great Britain, France...."

In the same vein, on 13 February Yugoslav Information Minister Goran Matic said that unnamed independent media and NGOs receive financial support "from the same aggressors who bombed us" during the 1999 Kosova conflict. He drew attention to Seselj's remarks to underscore his point. Elsewhere, Serbian Information Minister Aleksandar Vucic said that the protests at home and abroad over Seselj's remarks constituted a "witch-hunt against the Radicals."

In Vienna, the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights called on the Serbian public prosecutor's office to "take legal action" against Seselj. The Vienna-based NGO's statement stressed that Seselj had "threatened" civil society in Serbia through his belligerent remarks, especially the reference to "liquidation."

It is, of course, likely to be some time before Serbia has a public prosecutor who is prepared to take action against Seselj. But his remarks and those by his loyalists reflect not strength, but rather weakness and near panic in the face of a series of mafia-style slayings.

For more than a dozen years, the nationalist regime has fostered a closed political culture and atmosphere of intolerance that has led Serbia to its present dead-end. Seselj and his allies are responding to that situation in the only way they know. (Patrick Moore)

Herzegovinians Bitter Over Mesic Victory. Ivan Prskalo, the mayor of Mostar, is in the midst of an impassioned defense. In his airy office, furnished IKEA-style, he insists that his people, the Herzegovinian Croats, do not deserve criticism for preventing peace from taking root in Bosnia. The blame, he says, lies with the Bosnian Muslim leadership in Sarajevo, which seeks to impose Islamic law and to oppress the Croatian minority.

Suddenly, he is interrupted by the wail of the muezzin from the ancient mosque next door. It is the midday call to prayer. "It doesn't irritate me, but I don't like the loudness," Mr. Prskalo says through an interpreter. "And it's gotten even louder since the war.... It's not the most beautiful song to hear at five each morning."

Four years after the war, ethnic polarization continues to thrive in Bosnia-Herzegovina. And Prskalo's assertions notwithstanding, it's not the fault of only one side. Croatian, Serbian, and Muslim hardliners stick with a tried-and-true formula to stay in power: stoke interethnic fears, to convince voters of the need to rally around their own flag.

But a change is in the air in Mostar, sundered in May 1993 as the Croats turned on the Muslims--their onetime allies against the Serbs--in a bid to carve out a chunk of Bosnia to unite with Croatia. Along the icy sidewalk near cafes serving honey-soaked baklava, there are ubiquitous posters of deceased Croatian President Franjo Tudjman. Back in Zagreb, the public displays were put up and taken down in a matter of days. But Mostar Croats refuse to let go. "They definitely have reason to grieve," says a Western diplomat based in Mostar since 1996. "Tudjman encouraged them to believe they were a part of Croatia. But the reality is different. They live in a different country."

The West has long castigated Croatia for failing to extradite alleged war criminals to the Hague tribunal, for blocking the return of ethnic Serbian refugees, and for channeling cash and arms to Herzegovina's Croats. Stipe Mesic, the winner of last Monday's presidential runoff in Croatia, has vowed to scale back Croatia's hefty financial assistance--estimated at $300,000 to $500,000 per day--for Mostar's Croats (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 8 February 2000).

Without such patronage, Western officials expect Herzegovina's Croats to gradually moderate their stance.

"We have reason to believe they will realize the need to work within the structure of Bosnia-Herzegovina to find solutions to their problems," says Avis Benes of the Office of the UN High Representative in Mostar.

Western observers describe Croatia's apparent shift in attitude as the most promising event in the region since the 1995 Dayton peace accord. If Zagreb tones down its rhetoric, the reasoning goes, Bosnia's Croats, Serbs, and Muslims may follow suit.

Famous for its 16th-century white stone bridge, Mostar is the urban hub of Herzegovina, the southwest region of the republic. Mostar people were regarded as a diverse but tolerant bunch before the war. But since 1993, the green Neretva River has also split the city demographically, with Muslims living mostly on the east bank, Croats on the West.

Mostar Croats tune in to Croatia's state-controlled television, and the school curriculum here is identical to that in Croatia. "Kids here are taught more about the hills around Zagreb than the hills around Mostar," says the diplomat.

Now many Herzegovinian Croats feel betrayed. There is widespread anxiety about the future. Jobs are scarce and the Croat population in the republic has declined from 17 to 10 percent. "Many people here fought and died defending Croatia, and then they took care of us," says Damir, who has a temporary job in a juice-bottling plant. "They can't just leave us like this. We're the minority here."

But a Bosnian Muslim named Seijla expects this cycle of ethnic politics to go on for years. "The Croats fear what will happen if the Muslims take over, so they'll continue voting for hardliners." (Michael J. Jordan

Quotations Of The Week. [Q] "You have been given power again. Are you not afraid that the taste of power will change you?"

[A] "I have already tasted power. I used to be a mayor, a prime minister, a speaker, and also the head of the Yugoslav state, so power cannot change me. It cannot hypnotize me and I do not view power as a means of getting rich." -- Stipe Mesic to Czech Radio, 8 February.

"The [political] divisions [within Montenegro] are very sharp. They are irrational, but there is not much room for dialogue." -- Montenegrin political analyst Miodrag Vlahovic to AP on 12 February.