Hundreds of Serbians gathered at the airport in Belgrade last week to welcome a ghost from their recent past. Vojislav Seselj, leader of the former ultra-right-wing Serbian Radical Party, came back home after spending more than 11 years in the detention unit of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
The Tribunal based in The Hague announced that Seselj was conditionally released for humanitarian reasons before getting a sentence; he is to be treated for metastasised colon cancer. No Tribunal official has been able to say when they would be handing down a sentence; the most optimistic estimation (by outsiders) has been 2016. The ICTY is at risk of having yet another defendant die before being sentenced when its credibility is at an all-time low. Not even those who enthusiastically supported it in the past believe today in its ability to bring justice for war crimes.
Back in 2003 before he flew to The Hague, Seselj announced he was going there to destroy “that anti-Serbian political institution”. And he succeeded. Many Serbians, even those who do not lean right, see him as someone who came home a winner, as the man who brought the Tribunal down to its knees.
And as officials in The Hague contemplate the future of the ICTY, Serbia will have to deal with the resurrection of Seselj which threatens to stir simmering tensions within a society tired of endless transition.
Back in 2003, current Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic and Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic saw off Seselj on his way to The Hague with tears. Back in the 1990s they were both close associates of Seselj – the number two and number three in the Serbian Radical Party, one of the largest political parties in Serbia at that time. When Seselj went to the ICTY, Nikolic assumed the leadership of the party.
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As members of parliament, Nikolic and Vucic wore Seselj’s image pinned on their lapels, promoted his ideas of a Greater Serbia and declared all steps taken by Serbia towards Euro-Atlantic integration betrayal.
In 2008, the two of them, along with 20 other radicals, abandoned the ultranationalist cause. They formed the new Serbian Progressive Party and made an ideological u-turn. Their party now supports cooperation with the US, rapprochement with Western Europe, and EU accession.
But unlike other countries from the region which negotiated their way into the EU, Serbia’s accession path is complicated by tough demands from the EU, including normalisation of relations with Kosovo, and renunciation of Serbia’s “neutral foreign policy” on the Ukraine issue and introduction of sanctions towards Russia.
The Serbian government conceeded to signing an agreement on the normalisation of relations with Kosovo which was negotiated and signed in Brussels under the auspices of the EU. This move was not well-received by nationalists.
One of the first statements Seselj made after stepping on Serbian soil was that he is now seeking “revenge” against all those who had betrayed him – an uncanny reference to Vucic and Nikolic. He went on to call for establishing a close alliance with Russia (even suggesting what he called “integration“) and abandoning the negotiations for accession to the EU and any cooperation with western countries
During the welcoming rally for Seselj in the centre of Belgrade, the media, under the influence of the ruling party, only took pictures of older, unkempt and bearded ultranationalists who looked like extras from an old movie. The media tried to ignore the presence of young men and women who were only children when Seselj went to The Hague.
These young people might not remember the politics of the 1990s, but they are disappointed and bitter about their lives in the 2010s. They cannot see a tangible benefit from Serbia’s re-orientation towards Europe and Nato. They are young, angry and in need of a charismatic figure to worship. Seselj could be the catalyst to ignite their discontent and lead them to become a strong factor in Serbian politics.
We no longer have citizens in Serbia, Ratko Bozovic, a sociologist and professor tells me; we have only “partocrats”. People go from one party to another without paying any attention to ideas; they just go with those in power. With the reduction in salaries and retirement compensations which will take place before Christmas, there will be further citizenship attrition. Bozovic says that if Seselj’s health does not fail him, he is well-positioned to win many more followers for the ultra-right cause in Serbia.
Vucic and Nikolic are well aware that they have limited space for manoeuvre in complying with western demands. In the weeks leading up to Seselj’s return, Belgrade hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin for a short visit, welcoming him with a military parade and decorating him with the Order of the Republic of Serbia. While Seselj was welcomed at the airport, Russian and Serbian troops conducted a joint military exercises in the north of Serbia. Clearly, Vucic and Nikolic cannot risk giving Seselj more political capital for his revenge.
Were it not for this geostrategic labyrinth and an EU accession process made too slow and difficult, Seselj’s return to the immature political scene in Serbia would have not created so much confusion. Had The Hague Tribunal efficiently and impartially done its job and justly sentenced or acquit those suspected of war crimes, Seselj and his rhetoric would have been forgotten.
With the current geopolitical circumstances, Seselj’s presence on Serbian soil will only create more tension and instability and will be a constant reminder of our war-torn past.
Zorana Suvakovic is a Belgrade-based journalist, columnist and editor, working for the Serbian newspaper Politika.