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Serbian Radicals Force President Milosevic's Hand

Showdown will steer the course of the war in Bosnia and Croatia

SERBIAN President Slobodan Milosevic is facing a serious challenge from his own political creation, right-wing leader Vojislav Seselj, in a power struggle between the chief self-avowed defenders of Serbian national interests.

A resolution could ultimately require elections in both Serbia and Yugoslavia and holds implications for the future of the Yugoslav conflict, a settlement of which hinges directly on Belgrade's positions regarding war and peace.

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Mr. Seselj and his Serbian Radical Party (SRP) were once Mr. Milosevic's loyal servants, backing his December 1992 reelection and providing the support his Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) needed to maintain minority federal and republic governments. They also led purges of Milosevic rivals, including former Yugoslav president Dobrica Cosic and former federal prime minister Milan Panic.

But tensions began last spring after Milosevic enraged Seselj by agreeing to the first peace plan for Bosnia-Herzegovina. They exploded last week, when Seselj announced that the SRP would press no-confidence votes against the Serbian and federal governments for failing to halt the economic chaos produced by 27 months of war and 17 months of UN sanctions.

The first vote is set for Oct. 7 against Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Sainovic in what is widely seen as Seselj's opening thrust for power that will ultimately target Milosevic.

Seselj is not expected to oust Ms. Sainovic, because the Radicals lack the two-thirds majority they need in the 250-seat Serbian Assembly. But they hold enough seats there and in the Yugoslav Parliament to stall new business indefinitely. Seselj declares: ``We will block every decision.''

To deal with Serbia's economic calamity Milosevic may be forced to call elections to secure majorities for his party and end Seselj's legislative strangleholds.

``What you will have would be wounded minority governments that might be able to continue for a month or two. In that scenario, you would be talking about elections,'' a Western diplomat says.

One sign that Milosevic is at least considering early polls is a massive mobilization of state-run media, particularly television, in a slander campaign aimed at undercutting Seselj's popularity.

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The nightly news is dominated by anti-Seselj commentaries and SPS committee meetings in villages, towns, and factories across Serbia at which he is condemned as a ``fascist.''

The rhetoric mirrors an earlier SPS statement accusing Seselj of employing ``arrogance and criminal aggression'' in a ``naked fight for power.''

The SPS charged he was personally involved in atrocities against non-Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia by his party's paramilitary wing, the Serbian Chetnik Movement.

Saying he is an obstacle to peace, the SPS called Seselj ``a symbol of violence and primitivism'' and promised to reveal evidence of his alleged participation in war crimes. Both sides culpable

International human rights groups have implicated Seselj's fighters in atrocities and ethnic cleansing, but have also held Milosevic responsible for war crimes.

Seselj shows no sign of backing off, and he has as much dirt on Milosevic as the Serbian leader has on him.

He denies the SPS allegations with the same aplomb with which he brushed off his inclusion last year in a US government list of suspected war criminals.

``I'm not afraid of anyone,'' he brags. ``I'm the strongest.''

But that is far from certain.

Milosevic, the Balkans' paramount maneuverer and political survivor, is favored to emerge victorious because of his grip on the all-powerful media, the security services, and bureaucracy.

He is also viewed as the lesser of two evils by many who see Seselj as a power-thirsty war-monger bent on erasing whatever vestiges of human and political rights Milosevic has retained in the rump Yugoslav federaton of Serbia and Montenegro. Serbia unstable

Seselj, however, sensed Milosevic's increasing vulnerability over the economic upheaval produced by UN sanctions.

Milosevic's failure to openly articulate his goal in sponsoring the costly conquests in Bosnia and Croatia has also won support for Seselj, who declares his intent ``to unite all Serbian states into a single state.''

Seselj, the Sarajevo-born former university professor and self-styled ``duke'', is believed to have built considerable support among hard-line nationalists in the Army, media, and police.

While not naming Milosevic, Seselj has accused the socialists of abandoning the goal of ``Greater Serbia'' by compromising with Serbia's foes to win a reprieve from the sanctions.

With deceptively boyish looks and rapid-fire speech, Seselj advocates defiance and plays to jingoist sentiments by equivocating ``patriotism'' with rigid loyalty to building ``Greater Serbia'' no matter the costs.

He has enraged the SPS by advocating populist measures to curb economic hardships, including equal salaries for all.

Detractors, especially democratic opposition leaders, are labeled ``traitors'' whose arrests Seselj promises should he gain power.

Recent opinion polls have put the SRP ahead of the SPS, showing the radicals continuing the meteoric rise that began with their winning more than 30 percent of last December's election ballots. Seselj is by far the most popular politician among Bosnian and Croatian Serbs.

But he is confident of his position: ``I challenge the socialists to an election,'' he declares. ``That is the only way to test whether I am sitting on their coattails.''

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