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Serbia: The curious case of Vojislav Šešelj

Author: Pavel Dubrouski

The recent developments related to drastic deterioration in health condition of notorious Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Šešelj reminded the broad audience both in Serbia and abroad about the most controversial court case that the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has ever launched. The trial of chief of Serbian Radicals that he himself labelled as “Kafka’s trial aimed at humiliation of Serbian nation” provoked a profound split among the Serbs who found themselves divided in their opinions about this politician. The wide range of perceptions of Šešelj by his compatriots includes those of criminal, war profiteer, Milošević’s associate, Milošević’s opponent, defender of Serbdom, innocent victim of anti-Serbian plot, etc. The discussions and arguments about what he really is have been dominating public discourse in Serbia for many years. Thus, it seems that a short introduction of this undoubtedly bright personage might be quite interesting.

From promising student to dissident
The early stages of Šešelj’s career were marked with considerable academic successes: being aged only 25, he managed to obtain his doctoral degree becoming the youngest PhD holder in socialist Yugoslavia. Even earlier he joined the League of Communists of Yugoslavia (LCY). However, his average social background as well as explosive temper became an obstacle for a brilliant party career. After he had been expelled from LCY, he started associating closely with dissident circles, becoming one of the most outspoken critics of the regime. Šešelj’s open and harsh criticism of party’s policy led to his arrest and 2-year prison term that he served between 1984 and 1986. It was precisely that time when he began experimenting with nationalist rhetoric. In effect, by early 1990s Šešelj became the most uncompromised and vocal representative of nationalsit wing in Serbia.

Šešelj the nationalist
His contribution to bloody collapse of the SFRY was appreciable. Being already well-known for his radical pro-Serbian opinions in national question, he surprised no one when established his Serbian Radical Party (SRS) in 1991. Very vague, but mutually advantageous relationship with the regime made it easier for Šešelj to secure a high popularity for the party and himself. As many claim, he was responsible for “dirty job” on Milošević’s behalf that concluded in organizing paramilitary units for the fronts in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina as well as heating up ethnic intolerance among the local Serbs. Allegedly, the volunteers led by Šešelj committed numerous crimes between 1991 and 1993 (including those in Vukovar, Šamac, Zvornik, etc.). Inside Serbia he was widely believed to be in fierce opposition to Milošević, and this reputation enabled SRS to gain high percentage of votes in all parliamentary elections held in Serbia in the 1990s.

Šešelj vs. the ICTY
The ouster of Milošević and his subsequent transfer to the Hague for trial marked the end of Šešelj’s political prosperity. Very soon he realized that it came the time to bear responsibility for his deeds. As a result, he turned himself into the Hague Tribunal in 2003, assuming that in terms of possible final outcome this option is much more promising than shameful Milošević-style arrest. His trial over allegations of crimes against humanity was accompanied by many scandals since then. His disdain for the court, heavy insults at the judges, numerous violations of the ICTY Statute, etc. resulted into the unprecedentedly long duration of his trial, arousing a lot of criticism towards the Tribunal. Thus, it is very interesting what the final verdict will be.

The absence of Vojislav Šešelj on the political scene of Serbia had a positive impact on its general condition. SRS lost its prominent leader while the popularity of radical nationalism in general shirked significantly. It also led to the split in the party and emergence of Serbian Progressive Party that is one of the favorites in the forthcoming parliamentary elections (May, 2012). As for SRS, it can hardly expect impressive results.

The calculations of Šešelj to take the lead in the trial from the very beginning by voluntary surrounding and quite trivial patriotic rhetoric failed. Instead, he made an exhibition of himself, and today the number of those concerned by his fate is at its smallest. The fact is that in the last 2 years the protests in his support barely gathered several hundred people. Thus, the final decision of the court is unlikely to cause a mass revolt.

At the same time, the reputation of the ICTY suffered hardly due to poor organization of Šešelj’s trial, primarily with regard to its duration. It looks like the final verdict will come shortly. But it is definitely not going to be made before the elections.

However, it seems that even if this verdict will be favorable for Šešelj and he comes back to Serbia, he will not enjoy such a great popularity any longer. His nationalism is incompatible with contemporary political climate and priorities of Serbia.

About Łukasz Fleischerowicz