'Iron Lady' Takes Reins as Leader of Bosnian Serbs

PALE, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Ines Milicic remembers the telephone conversation well. It came at the start of the Balkans war, when fierce fighting between Serbs and Croats had erupted in Croatia.

Biljana Plavsic, then a Serbian member of the collective multiethnic presidency in Bosnia-Herzegovina, called her Croatian friend with a somber warning: Go visit your son in the United States. And don't come back, for you might be harmed.

"She said, 'Why don't you leave? Get out of Croatia,'" recalled Milicic, whose husband had been Plavsic's academic adviser in Zagreb, the Croatian capital, and longtime collaborator in the field of biology.

It was the last time Milicic heard from Plavsic, who was named de facto president of the Bosnian Serb republic this week in a deal between Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and Carl Bildt, the international mediator in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

It was also one of Plavsic's last known acts of friendship toward a non-Serb. In the intervening five years, the botany professor-turned-politician has emerged as one of the most strident Serbian nationalists in the former Yugoslavia, severing ties with non-Serb friends and insisting that Serbs live apart from Moslems and Croats -- regardless of the human toll such a separation might entail.

"I would compare [the future of Serbs] to the life of Israelis in their state,'' Plavsic said during the height of the 43-month Bosnian war. "They are doing their business with a rifle always at their side. That is our destiny.''

Although it is still uncertain whether the transfer of presidential power to Plavsic is genuine, she has come forward as the new public persona of the Bosnian Serb leadership.

It is a position she will probably hold at least through countrywide elections in Bosnia-Herzegovina in September. A popular Karadzic ally, she has also been selected by the ruling Serbian Democratic Party as its presidential candidate in the elections, according to officials here in the Bosnian Serb headquarters near Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital.

The new face of the Bosnian Serbs is etched with the chronic scowl of a no-nonsense academic, who spent 14 months as a Fulbright scholar in New York in the early 1970s. After years of teaching botany at Sarajevo University, she earned a reputation as a dedicated but austere public servant.

For the self-described "iron lady'' of Bosnian Serb politics, pleasantries have little meaning.

"She is as cold as hell,'' said one international official. "The others are always cordial, but she won't even shake your hand if she doesn't like something you said that day.''

Plavsic fled her Sarajevo home after the war spread to Bosnia-Herzegovina in the spring of 1992, the last Serb nationalist leader to abandon the capital. She joined Karadzic and a handful of others as ringleaders of the breakaway Bosnian Serb republic, spending most of the war in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, and the northern Bosnian Serb stronghold of Banja Luka.

Although there was some conflict between her and Karadzic, particularly when she complained about his war-profiteering friends, she ultimately settled into the role of devoted deputy.