BANJA LUKA, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Acrid cigarette smoke hovered in the room of the Book Lovers' Club of Banja Luka, with its worn wicker chairs, steady clink of small coffee cups, noisy chatter and shelves of well-thumbed Serbian literature.
Groups of unemployed teachers, unpublished writers, journalists and others who pass for the intellectual lights of a small Bosnian city, most in threadbare coats, gathered to ward off an unseasonable chill and to escape from the political debacle that has engulfed Serbian-held Bosnia.
But with rival Serbian leaders facing off in this weekend's election, discussion inevitably reverted to politics.
"We hope the power struggle will end this weekend with the parliamentary elections," said Divna Damjanovic, 43, a reporter for a small magazine.
"But we expect not. It may have only begun. People are frightened, tired, burned out. It is as if the war just refuses to end."
The latest round in the battle by Washington to replace Radovan Karadzic, the powerful former Bosnian Serb president who has been indicted on war-crimes charges, with his rival and successor, Biljana Plavsic, turns on a parliamentary vote this weekend.
But in light of Plavsic's waning support, the vote appears increasingly likely to backfire on its Western patrons.
Radical Party makes gains
To the chagrin of many Western diplomats, the likely beneficiaries may be the extreme nationalists in the Radical Party, led by Vojislav Seselj, a Serbian paramilitary leader.
Radical Party leaders condemn Plavsic for "selling out" to the West and have promised to ally themselves with the Bosnian Serb hard-liners if elected.
"Plavsic's support is eroding," said Dorde Latinovic, 36, the parliamentary candidate from the Liberal Party, the only party in the Bosnian Serb republic that has condemned the nationalist movements that fueled the war.
"The party officials she denounced as corrupt have not been arrested, but instead have switched sides and now run her party, making a mockery of her promises to clean up the government. Corruption and smuggling continue.
"Worst of all, she is perceived by most Serbs as a stooge of the West.
"There is little chance that Plavsic will control the new parliament," Latinovic added. "The elections will boost the authority of the one man the West seems to hate as much as Karadzic, Vojislav Seselj," the ultra-nationalist.
Bid to shut out Karadzic
If Karadzic's governing Serb Democratic Party, which expelled Plavsic last summer, and its allies in the Radical Party retain a majority in the 83-seat assembly, it will be a humiliating defeat for the United States, which has helped orchestrate the election in an effort to bring about a parliament free of Karadzic's dominance.
NATO troops, in moves that have antagonized many Serbs, have seized police stations in towns in the western part of Serbian-controlled Bosnia and installed police officers who have pledged loyalty to Plavsic.
The troops have also taken over key television transmitters that allow a studio in Plavsic's office building in Banja Luka to dominate the airwaves, often with propaganda as crude as that of her rivals.
"Our best hope now is that Plavsic gets enough votes to build some kind of a coalition with other parties, perhaps the Socialists, who are closely linked with Milosevic," said a Western diplomat, referring to the Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic.
"If this does not work, it will be a disaster."
Pub Date: 11/23/97