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Bosnia: Biljana Plavsic--The Bosnian Serbs' Iron Lady

Prague, 28 August 1997 (RFE/RL) -- She has been called the Iron Lady, the Ice Queen, and Our Serbian Mother. Biljana Plavsic, the president of the Republika Srpska, is well on the way to achieving something that the armies of Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman never could do in four years of warfare: to discredit in the eyes of many Serbs the hard-line Bosnian Serb leadership around Radovan Karadzic.

Plavsic was born in Visoko, near Sarajevo, in 1930. She later studied in Zagreb and, like her father, became a biologist. After a stint in the U.S. on a Fulbright grant in the early 1970s, she enjoyed a successful career as a professor and university official in Sarajevo.

Despite repeated offers, however, she never joined the League of Communists of Yugoslavia, even though party membership was generally a pre-requisite for advancement in a university career. Some old friends of hers say that she became a staunch Serbian nationalist during her stay in the U.S., where she allegedly had strong contacts to Serbian political emigres.

Her political career began in earnest in 1990. She was one of the founding members of Karadzic's Serbian Democratic Party (SDS), which later that year captured virtually all of the Serbian votes in Bosnia's first free elections ever.

Like Karadzic, her political views were based on Serbian nationalism and Orthodox Christianity. She denied that Bosnia's three nationalities -- the Muslims, Croats, and Serbs -- could live together in peace, and she has described the Muslims as "a genetic defect on the Serbian body." She once said that it would be worth it for the Serbs to lose even one million dead in war if that was the price to be paid for a Greater Serbia. And also like Karadzic, she mistrusted former communists, like then-Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, whom she regarded as an opportunist.

Plavsic served as one of the Serbian members of Bosnia's multi-ethic presidency from December 1990 until Karadzic launched the war in April 1992. She soon became Karadzic's vice president, a position she held until 1996. In that year she succeeded Karadzic as president after international pressure forced him to leave the public stage. She then won the presidency in her own right with 59 percent of the votes in the elections held in September.

She has repeatedly shown herself to be tough and determined, as is often the case with women who make successful careers in the macho world of Balkan politics. In 1993, she publicly refused to shake hands with Milosevic when he came to Bosnia to persuade the Serbs to sign the Vance-Owen peace plan. Plavsic charged that Milosevic had sold out the Bosnian Serbs in order to get the sanctions against Serbia and Montenegro lifted.

And there was never any doubt about the depth of her nationalist convictions. She once publicly kissed Zeljko Raznatovic -- better known as Arkan and as a champion of "ethnic cleansing." She then told reporters: "I only kiss the heroes." Plavsic once defended Bosnian Serb territorial demands that would leave the Serbs with much more land than the more numerous Muslims, saying: "the Muslims like to live on top of each other. It's their culture. We Serbs need space."

But her iron will most clearly manifested itself this year, when she took on Karadzic and his power structure. She charged her former colleagues with corruption and mafia-like practices that were robbing the Republika Srpska of millions in lost revenues. Plavsic demanded the rule of law and respect for the Dayton agreement since, she said, that treaty provided the legal foundations for a Bosnian Serb state.

She pulled out all the stops at the end of June this year, when Milosevic's and Karadzic's police tried to stage a coup against her. Since then, one Bosnian Serb institution after another has split into two, with one faction pledging loyalty to Karadzic and his group in Pale, and the other backing Plavsic, who is based in Banja Luka.

Her strength and determination surprised many observers, but, she told reporters, people who considered her weak "do not know me." One person she astonished is her old colleague from the SDS and now Karadzic's chief spokesman, Momcilo Krajisnik. He said recently in amazement: "this lady has no brakes."