Monday, May 20, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Karadzic Gives Power To Hard-Line, Notorious `Serb Empress' -- He Reneges On Quitting, Makes Extremist His Agent


SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina - Defying international pressure to give up power, Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic shifted some duties to an extreme nationalist ally instead of stepping down as he had reportedly promised.

Verbal guarantees of Karadzic's resignation had been made yesterday to the international community's top civilian official in Bosnia, Carl Bildt. But later that day, Bosnian Serb officials denied Karadzic had planned to quit.

Instead, Karadzic on Saturday handed over responsibility of dealing with the international community to Biljana Plavsic, in an effort to unite opposition to the Dayton peace agreement and shield himself from criticism. She is expected to continue his policies.

Western officials have shunned Karadzic, indicted as a war-crimes suspect, viewing him as a major obstacle to implementation of the Dayton accord that ended almost four years of fighting in Bosnia.

"We want total removal of Karadzic," an official in Bildt's office said.

Karadzic demonstrated his still-formidable power by firing Bosnian Serb Prime Minister Rajko Kasagic last week and replacing him in a parliamentary session on Saturday.

The hard-line Karadzic objects to the more moderate Kasagic's support for peace efforts and international intervention in Bosnia. Karadzic insists Serbs cannot live alongside Muslims, as the accord prescribes, and instead need their own territory.

The dispute between Karadzic and Kasagic, who has since gone into hiding, threatens to divide Serb-controlled Bosnia into two parts: an eastern region overseen by Karadzic, and northwest Bosnia controlled by more moderate Serbs.

Plavsic is said to be as militant as Karadzic, but not as powerful.

Serb liberals shudder at the mention of her name. Nationalists call her "the Serb empress."

The coming weeks will show if Plavsic, 66, will be more cooperative than Karadzic. But judging from her stubborn nationalist role throughout the Bosnian war, it's hardly likely.

In one well-known example, she refused to shake the hand of Serbia's President Slobodan Milosevic in 1993, until then a hero among Bosnian Serbs.

A renowned anti-Communist, born to a family of wealthy merchants and intellectuals in Tuzla in northern Bosnia, Plavsic has often said she once abhorred politics.

She had a quiet, respectable career as a biology professor at Sarajevo University. A graduate of Zagreb University, in the 1970s she received a fellowship in the United States, where she spent two years lecturing and doing research.

With the fall of communism in the former Yugoslavia, Plavsic become an activist in 1990 in Karadzic's new Serb Democratic Party in Bosnia.

It was a time when new, non-communist parties flourished, but so did nationalism, bringing disaster to the most ethnically diverse republic in the country: Bosnia.

Some say Plavsic played a key role in the war.

"We are looking at one of the architects of the ethnic cleansing," said an official close to Bildt.

Plavsic stood by Karadzic when he led Serbs to rebel against the Muslim-Croat majority that wanted to split from the Serb-dominated former Yugoslav federation.

"If they want to be independent from Yugoslavia, we have the right to be independent from them," Plavsic often said in the days when she and Karadzic were among the Serb nationalists who proclaimed an independent Serb state in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

During the fighting, she often was seen at places where Serbs conducted the worst systematic killing of rival Muslims and Croats.

She is well-remembered for walking hand in hand with a Serb paramilitary leader, Zeljko Raznatovic, better known as the notorious Arkan, during his 1992 seizure of Bijeljina, a northeastern Bosnian town that became a symbol of Serb atrocities.

In front of cameras, a euphoric Plavsic kissed Arkan on the cheek. He later named her "the Serb empress" and gave her his self-styled "Obilic" medal for bravery.

"I always kiss the heroes," she later explained.

She has been at odds for years with Milosevic, the Communist-turned-nationalist who instigated Serb rebellions in Bosnia and Croatia. Milosevic eventually switched gears and pressured Bosnian Serbs to accept a peace deal.

Plavsic was the first to publicly admonish Milosevic for giving up the dream of uniting Serbs from the former Yugoslavia in one state: a "Greater Serbia."

In 1993, Plavsic refused to shake his hand. Milosevic retaliated by banning her from Serbia, where she had spent part of the war in a comfortable apartment provided by the state.

Serene and elegantly dressed, Plavsic has been an idol for many Bosnian Serbs. But not all.

She is said to have shocked a group of grieving Serb mothers and widows whose sons and husbands were killed during the early months of the war in 1992.

"Don't cry," she said. "Don't weep. This is only the beginning."

She was right. An estimated 200,000 people died in the war.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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