Analysis 03 Apr 15

Serbia Feels the Heat Over Seselj Extradition

Pressure on the Serbian government to send war crimes suspect Vojislav Seselj back to detention in The Hague is likely to prove insurmountable in the end.

Gordana Andric
Seselj leads a protest in Belgrade after his release.

Nikola Selakovic, the Serbian justice minister, said the government has yet to discuss whether to send Vojislav Seselj, leader of the Serbian Radical Party and a war-crimes suspect, back to the Hague Tribunal in response to its demand for his return to custody.

“We still haven’t received anything [from the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia]. When we receive the decision, we will decide how to act on it,” Selakovic told reporters on April 2.

Experts say that it is unlikely that the government will refuse to send Seselj back to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY, as this would impede the EU candidate country’s progress towards membership.

Officials have slated the Hague Tribunal’s decision, first to release the Radical Party leader and then recall him to custody, saying it was intended to undermine the government.

However, political analysts believe that such remarks were just a show, aimed at scoring points with nationalist voters opposed to the Tribunal.

On March 30, the court ordered Seselj, who was temporarily released for cancer treatment last November, to return for the verdict in his marathon trial.

Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic and other officials say they interpret the decision as punishment for Serbia’s failure to fall into line with EU policy on Russia over the Ukraine crisis and for maintaining friendly ties with Moscow.

They also say Serbia is being punished for a speech Vucic delivered on March 24 on the 16th anniversary of NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, when he said Serbia would never forget the 78-day air war or the victims of the “NATO aggressors”.

Seselj is on trial for crimes committed in the wars of the 1990s in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia. He surrendered voluntarily to The Hague in 2003, and remained there until November 2014.

The verdict in his case was scheduled for October 2013, but was postponed after one of the judges in the trial was removed for alleged bias.

The new judge is expected to take over by the end of June 2015. However, his need to familiarise himself with details of the case has caused yet another delay in the trial.

Attempt to ‘scare’ Serbia

Seselj burns the Croatian flag at a rally in Belgrade.

In a comment piece written for Politika newspaper on March 31, Vucic said Seselj was being used by unnamed opponents outside the country to “shake up” his administration and undermine his ruling Serbian Progressive Party.

“When they do not like what Serbia is doing, the fact that it has its own stance, that it won’t impose sanctions [on Russia], that it wants to be a friend with everyone – they release him [Seselj] from the box and wait for us to get scared,” Vucic wrote.

“When we continue without fear to conduct sovereign policies, when I just go out and say we will never forget one victim of the NATO bombing [in 1999], they put him back in the box and again wait for us to get scared,” he continued.

The Prime Minister’s statement, however, came just a day after Serbia hosted a conference of Serbian state officials and representatives of NATO.

Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General, on the same day stated that NATO had excellent cooperation with Serbia and that Vucic had recently told him that Serbia would appreciate more military exercises with the alliance.

NATO, the Hague Tribunal and Russia are all highly emotional topics in Serbia for different reasons. Most of the population sees Russia as Serbia’s historic close ally while NATO and ICTY are highly unpopular.

Vukasin Pavlovic, a political sociology professor with the Faculty of Political Sciences, told BIRN that Vucic’s comments about Seselj were just a “show for the people.

“These messages were intended for the domestic audience to whom the government is trying to present itself as a victim of international pressure, but a victim that is also strong and can resist everything,” Pavlovic said.

Ivan Jovanovic, former head of the OSCE’s department for war crimes and organised crime, said the Tribunal’s decision had nothing to do with Serbian politics.

“The judges probably do not even know the political situation in Serbia well, nor are they interested in it,” he said. “The decision was neither unusual nor surprising. It was legally founded,” he added.

“One of conditions of the [Hague Tribunal] rules of provisional release is that the defendant returns when asked to. Seselj said several times that he would not return, which gave the prosecution grounds to ask for the decision on his release to be cancelled,” he explained.

The appeals chamber at the Tribunal also said that Seselj’s statements since his return to Belgrade last November, in which he insisted that he would not return to the UN-backed court for the verdict, had “eroded the essential pre-conditions for provisional release”.

The merits of a further provisional release could be discussed, but only after Seselj was back in the Tribunal’s detention unit, it added.

Serbia has little choice

Seselj supporters greet him at Belgrade airport on his return from The Hague in November 2014.

When The Hague’s decision was delivered, Seselj again said he had no intention of returning to The Hague and challenged Vucic’s government to send him back by force, threatening to stage street protests.

“I will not defend myself from arrest but I am not going voluntarily. They can only carry me onto the plane to The Hague,” he told journalists on a visit to the town of Bor on March 31.

The same day, Vučić said the authorities would not force Seselj to return to the UN-backed court after it revoked his temporary release. “If you think someone will stage a raid in order to arrest him, it will not happen,” Vucic said.

However, experts believe the Serbian authorities will send Seselj back to The Hague in the end. “If The Hague released Seselj and is now calling him back, Serbia will have to do it,” Pavlovic said.

Jovanovic echoed this view and said that if Belgrade hesitates, the EU could condition further progress in the accession process on Seselj’s arrest.

“Serbia would hardly allow tensions with the EU over Seselj, especially in a political context where Seselj has few supporters - who could stage smaller protests but are unlikely to cause greater instability,” he concluded.

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