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INFO::: Transitional Justice > Seselj Case > Vojislav Šešelj – time capsule


Vojislav Šešelj – time capsule

By David B. Kanin

December 4, 2014, Transconflict

No one should be surprised that the people in charge of the world’s least effective war crimes tribunal let their most unrepentant warmonger go home to a hero’s welcome (at least from his reduced number of followers). From the beginning, these high and mighty judges, prosecutors, and bureaucrats have failed to realize that any train—much less one as slow moving as theirs is—does not get very far if it does not run on a track.

Croatian authorities have a good point when they threaten their intention to undermine Serbia’s current status as most favored Balkan EU supplicant if it does not deliver Šešelj back to The Hague.

They could even go farther by saying Croatia will block Serbia’s membership indefinitely if he dies in his bed in Serbia (still spitting out his venom of hate and national obscurantism) without having gone back to sit out the interminable ritual by which the Tribunal continues to slouch toward its end. It is important not to just ignore a creature as malevolent as Šešelj, even if he is well past his political prime.

Perhaps Zagreb and Belgrade (where there is a government as embarrassed by Šešelj as others are angered by him) should strike a deal that would keep Šešelj in Serbia as a sort of object lesson and entertainment vehicle. The authorities at a zoo could put him in a cage—dressed in his Chetnik finery—and let him spew forth his rants as long as his lungs permit. Teachers could bring school children to see for themselves what the face of hate and horror looks like.

Adults would be reminded of how it felt when politics, society, and security all collapsed at once. They also would remember that in the 1990s Šešelj was not alone. He was only among the most rabid of nationalists on all sides of the complicated set of disputes that shattered an economic and (potential) social federal structure that—with all its faults and history as an oppressive Serb Kingdom and then a Communist dictatorship—could have led to something better than the chaos that has replaced it. Instead, thanks to Slovene and Croatian fictions about their “Central European” status, Milosevic’s short-sighted bully-boy tactics, Serbian enthusiasm for artillery, and international determination to impose teleology rather than think through a set of problems, what the region has now has no functioning formal structure at all. The patronage networks provide what passes for a political and economic system.

Seselj-watchers of all ages would be well-served to see in his contorted face the kind of mis-directed passion that kills countries, poisons communities, and leaves the kinds of scars that do not easily heal. The layered conflicts that have afflicted the Balkans since the 1870s still resonate—no matter the serial declarations by generations of local activists and international activists that the region has moved on. The bedrock truth is that there are as yet no final statuses in a shatter zone that remains dependent on the latest version of international oversight.

Serbia’s official reaction to having Šešelj dumped in their trash bin is instructive in this regard. Prime Minister Vučić had the option of welcoming, noting, or ignoring a European Parliament resolution condemning the tribunal’s decision to disgorge this defendant. Instead, he condemned the Parliament’s action and reminded its members of the hypocrisy involved in its expressions of anger. This was meant for internal consumption, of course, but that is the point. Serbia’s political class reasonably worries about being outflanked by nationalists who still can play on the general belief that Serbia was a victim, not a perpetrator of the events of the 1990s.

Vučić also should be excused for perhaps being a little miffed that the tribunal decided to dump this problem on a government already dealing with economic problems (and its Ukraine-based balancing act between Russia and the West). This is the sort of blunder that feeds the conspiracy theory machine that is so central to Balkan thinking. Alexander Vulin’s is not the only overheated mind that believes the US ordered the Tribunal to release Seselj in order to destroy the current Serbian government. Fantasies of international plots help the locals construct rationales as to why they are the pawns of outsiders who do nothing but think up ways to make them miserable. This makes it easy for Balkan politicians and some public intellectuals to avoid taking responsibility for their own future.

Šešelj’s nonsense has focused public and elite attention on the record of the 1990s in Bosnia and Croatia. There is good reason for that, but the publicity blip surrounding his reappearance also reflects on Kosova. The conventional wisdom is that the deal struck in April 2013 between Belgrade and Pristina marks Serbia’s practical acknowledgement that its former province really is lost, and that the technical negotiations will lead to Belgrade’s acknowledgment of Kosova’s independence sometime before it finalizes its entry into the EU.

This is not the case. Belgrade’s reaction to the European Parliament’s Seselj resolution is a reminder that Serbia will not accept Kosova’s sovereignty—and there is no reason for Belgrade to do so, as long as the EU continues to equivocate as to whether recognizing Kosova is a non-negotiable condition for Serbia’s entry. It does not matter that many Serbian politicians and publicists would not mind seeing the back of a place that actually was a part of the modern Serbian state from 1912-3 until 1999. These notables may well tell Western interlocutors privately that this is the case, but those outsiders should not make the mistake of imagining that something said privately to them is more important and more authoritative than public statements meant for those peoples’ constituents. The opposite is true.

Šešelj’s noise also underscores the continuing difficulty the US has in its flagging effort to get the five EU members who do not recognize Kosova to do so. The unexpected result of Romania’s presidential election may well focus Washington on pressing President-elect Iohannis and a weakened Prime Minister Ponta to be the first of the five to change its policy. My guess is that Ponta’s embarrassment at the polls will make this less likely to happen—at least until he restores some sense of balance to his internal political compass. Ponta needs to take the measure of Iohannis and deal with dissent from inside his party. Iohannis, meanwhile, will ponder what sort of a stamp he will put on his country’s foreign policy. The US’s best shot would be to press Bucharest to use recognition of Kosova as a low-cost means of demonstrating Romania’s opposition to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. The West as a whole could attempt to get Slovakia to follow suit and then round on Belgrade to suggest its reluctance to join the sanctions regime against Moscow and recalcitrance regarding its Lost Province are untenable.

The chance of such a strategy working would be low, of course, but at worst it would just become another chapter in the record of American diplomatic failure over Kosova since 2006. If Washington is lucky, Šešelj will do it the favor of making enough noise to seriously annoy at least two of the EU-5.

Meanwhile, the fallout from the Šešelj release—limited as it likely will be—will obstruct relations among the other shards of the former Yugoslavia. Slovenia and Croatia can use the brouhaha to assuage their pain over internal political problems and their shift in status from relatively will-off parts of the shattered Federation to struggling states at the periphery of the EU. Slovenes and Croats can tell themselves that at least they are superior to the Serbs. By taking advantage of the Šešelj distraction, weakened Bosnia Serb strongman Milorad Dodik can ramp up his secessionist rhetoric, even as he maneuvers to lash his declining patronage machine to Bosnjak and Bosnian Croat counterparts.

The fact these inter-elite chess games further push back any hope of meaningful political and structural change once again demonstrates the bedrock dysfunctionality of Bosnia. It also will give hope to Šešelj and this who think (if that is the right word) like him that someday they or their children can provoke the new regional conflict they seek.



David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).



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