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Why is Serbia’s President Silent about Seselj’s Conviction?

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic was the wartime protégé of ultranationalist politician Vojislav Seselj, so it’s no surprise that he has said nothing about his former leader’s conviction for crimes against humanity.

This article is also available in: Shqip Македонски Bos/Hrv/Srp

The recent verdict from the Hague court that proclaimed Vojislav Seselj guilty of crimes against humanity is most welcome, but purely symbolic.

Although none of Seselj’s proven or unproven crimes were small or insignificant, he was only found guilty of what an incompetent prosecutor’s office could prove – the crimes of hate speech that incited violence in Serbia.

The verdict was another blow to war victims in Bosnia and Croatia, where he was acquitted of any wrongdoing, but it is nevertheless important – Seselj is now a convicted war criminal.

Despite that, he remains as politically active as ever, a member of the Serbian parliament as leader of the Serbian Radical Party, a frequent guest on TV talk shows and active on social media.

He always manages to put a show during his rallies in Belgrade – the most significant was during the US election campaign in 2016, when he and his supporters endorsed Donald Trump for president. During this particular rally, he ran through his usual repertoire, full of hate towards Americans, Croats, Bosniaks and Albanians, even claiming that US Vice-President Joe Biden’s son died of “an overdose from the drugs provided by Shqiptars [derogatory term for Albanians]”.

His ultranationalist ideas that helped fuel the wars for a ‘Greater Serbia’ – in which all Serbs would live in the same state, cleansed of minorities and ‘the others’ – have also remained intact among Serbs ever since the conflicts ended.

Today, Seselj-like rhetoric rules the Serbian public sphere, as he continues to offend, mock and threaten internal and external enemies of the Greater Serbia project that he still openly advocates, at the expense of anyone who stands in its way.

In his reaction to the verdict that found him guilty, Seselj was typically unapologetic – he told BIRN that he is “proud of all the war crimes and crimes against humanity” attributed to him and that he’s “ready to repeat them in the near future”.

His Serbian Radical Party still has 22 MPs in parliament, but over the years, his following has diminished and gravitated towards Aleksandar Vucic, his former disciple in the party, alongside Tomislav Nikolic.

Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj (left) at a meeting in Belgrade, 1999. Photo: EPA-PHOTO/EPA/SASA STANKOVIC.

First Nikolic was elected as president of Serbia, then Vucic. But in the days when they were Radical Party officials, they could be seen at Seselj’s side at the forefront of rallies that stirred up nationalist passions in Bosnia and Croatia.

Nikolic and Vucic both served as his loudspeakers in parliament until 2008, when they broke away and created the now-ruling Serbian Progressive Party. However, their involvement as Seselj’s right- and left-hand men are indisputable. It’s enough to glance at the horrific footage of a young Vucic visiting the hills of Sarajevo with Seselj and gazing down on the siege of the city by Bosnian Serb forces.

Vucic, despite his current good standing among Western leaders, still seems to owe a debt to his former boss.

If this wasn’t the case, we would have heard at least a word from him about the verdict that recently found Seselj guilty of war crimes in Serbia. Wouldn’t it be expected that the president of a country addresses a verdict that finds a man guilty of crimes in the very country of which he is president?

In Vucic’s case – no. It is painfully obvious why Vucic decided to remain silent: Vucic’s past, filled with Seselj-like actions and words, prevents him from ever convincingly saying or doing anything that to address what happened.

Let’s not forget that in 2007, on Seselj’s orders, Vucic offered the Serbian parliament as a safe house for the then-fugitive Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic. He even went further, inviting ‘The General’ to hide in his own house, which he pitched to Mladic as a safe haven.

It is not surprising then that Vucic hasn’t had anything to say about Seselj’s verdict since he has never denounced Seselj, nor apologised for his own contribution to the warmongering rhetoric of the 1990s.

On the contrary – other members of his party who were part of Seselj’s gang are also serving as public officials under Vucic’s administration today.

The latest example is the president of the Serbian parliament’s Committee for Culture and Information, Mirko Krlic, a member of Vucic’s party, who was involved in recruiting paramilitary volunteers from the Serbian region of Vojvodina to go to Bosnia and Croatia.

Tomislav Nikolic and Aleksandar Vucic at a Serbian Radical Party protest outside the US embassy in Belgrade, 2006. Photo: EPA/SASA STANKOVIC.

This is why Vucic is silent when it comes to Seselj – after having managed to manipulate the Serbian electorate and play the eternal victim, offering himself up on the altar of the national interest, he has not only politically survived, but thrived.

Everybody knows this – but the state of the Serbian society is such that Vucic, of all people, is seen as our best hope both internally and externally as a ‘factor of stability’ in the Balkans

During these distorted, post-truth times, as well as playing another submissive role – as Angela Merkel’s and Vladimir Putin’s protégé in the Balkans – Vucic is quietly regrouping the vile forces and doubling down on the nationalist rhetoric that started the Serbian aggression in the region in the early 1990s.

Doing what he knows best – satisfying the needs of his mentors, while arrogantly asserting himself to be the nation’s saviour at home – Vucic has succeeded in portraying himself as the only future we have left.

Behind all of his high-pitched pleas about the “grave situation” that Serbia is currently facing with Kosovo, because of which he “can’t eat or sleep”, Vucic’s autocratic governance remains unchecked and his incompetent opponents confused, while his popularity continues to rise.

Vucic is, indeed, the most talented politician in a generation – he has managed to maintain Seselj’s radical aura, which helps him among the many hardcore nationalists who admire him, but also helps him in keeping Seselj’s ideas and those of Slobodan Milosevic alive.

This is best seen in his support for Bosnian Serb President Milorad Dodik’s efforts to destroy Bosnia, and in his antagonistic efforts when it comes to Serb-Kosovar relations.

Maybe Seselj is still the most vocal in promoting the hatred that he’s been spreading for decades, but the most important silent supporter of his politics is his best apostle, the most powerful man in today’s Serbia – Aleksandar Vucic.

Seselj is guilty, but he won – his crime was perfect. His poisonous actions created enough supporters to sustain his ideas in the decades that followed.

That is why Vucic, Seselj’s most successful supporter, is quiet these days, but has a victorious grin on his face.

Milos Ciric is a Serbian politologist, educator, writer, media and human rights activist. He holds a BA in international relations from University of Belgrade, an MA in Cultural policy from the University of Arts, Belgrade and Lumière University Lyon 2, France, and an MA in Media studies from The New School University, New York.

The opinions expressed in the Comment section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.

This article is also available in: Shqip Македонски Bos/Hrv/Srp

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