Profile 15 Mar 12

Vojislav Seselj: Fallen Leader of Great Serbia

Back in the 1980s no one would have guessed that such a brilliant academic would end up in an international court accused of war crimes. Today the nationalist fanatic who dreamed of an ethnically cleansed Greater Serbia is waiting the court's verdict.

Marija Ristic

Vojislav Seselj in one of his first public appearances

Photo: YouTube Print Screen

Seselj was born in 1954, nine years after the end of the Second World War, in Sarajevo, Bosnia, which was then part of Yugoslavia.

After graduating in law as the best student in class and taking a PhD degree, in the 1980s he became one of the youngest teaching assistants at the Sarajevo Law Faculty before being expelled from the university in 1984 for nationalistic statements. A Sarajevo court jailed him for eight years, but the term was cut to two.

After release from prison Seselj moved to Belgrade, where he immersed himself in the Serbian nationalistic circles then opposing the Yugoslav Communist regime.

He started to publicly gravitate towards the ideas of the Chetniks, the Second World War followers of a Serb nationalist army officer called Draza Mihailovic. In 1990, as the one-party system disintegrated in Yugoslavia, he founded his own Serbian Chetnik Movement.

Seselj with his fellow Chetniks in Belgrade

Photo: YouTube Print Screen

That year he was arrested and imprisoned for attacking the House of Flowers, the memorial to Yugoslavia's longtime Communist leader, Josip Broz Tito. 

While in prison, he stood as a presidential candidate in the first multi-party elections in the former Yugoslavia and won around 90,000 votes.

His strong nationalist ideas led him to found a new far-right movement, the Serbian Radical Party, in 1991.  In the same year he became a member of Serbia's National Assembly.

Yugoslavia then began to fall apart, as armed conflicts spread from Slovenia to Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Seselj seized the moment and formed a voluntary paramilitary unit, nicknamed the "Seseljevci", which jointly with other military groups took part in the conflicts on the Serbian side.

His unit alongside other Serbian forces occupied numerous towns and villages all across eastern Croatia and Bosnia, killing, robbing and torturing non-Serb civilians.

Seselj became known for his extreme rhetoric, which he used to mobilize Serbs across the region. 

He openly advocated the "ethnic cleansing" of much of Yugoslavia, especially advocating the mass expulsion of Croats.

Seselj with a rifle during conflicts in former Yugoslavia

Photo: YouTube Print Screen

During a visit to the embattled eastern Croatian town of Vukovar, he announced to his soldiers and to the media that "no Ustasha" - meaning no Croat - would be allowed to leave the town alive.

In a speech in Apatin in Serbia's northern province of Vojvodina in 1992 he said that all remaining Croats should also be expelled from Serbia.

“We will not kill anyone, we will just put them in the buses and drive them to the Croatian border,” he said.

In that same period he fashioned the idea of  a "Greater Serbia" based on the principle “Where there are Serbian graves, there should be Serbian land”.

Seselj’s Great Serbia included all of present-day Serbia and Kosovo, Macedonia, Bosnia and Montenegro, as well as most of Croatia.

The idea of uniting Serbs in one state guided him and his soldiers during the whole period of conflict, and according to the indictment, Seselj was responsible for deporting tens of thousands of non Serbs and killing at least 905 Bosniaks and Croatians.


Seselj and Slobodan Milosevic, former President of Yugoslavia              Photo: YouTube Print Screen

While the Seseljevci were on the battlefield, their leader closely politically cooperated with Serbia's then leader, Slobodan Milosevic, and with the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.

In the 1998 Seselj’s party formed a coalition in Serbia with Milosevic’s ruling Socialist Party - the heirs to the old Serbian League of Communists - and his wife Mirjana Markovic's party, the Yugoslav Left.  

Based on the agreement with Milosevic, Seselj became a vice-president of the Serbian government.

According to some analysts, Seselj actively participated in the creation of Milosevic’s policy towards Kosovo, called "Operation Horseshoe", the aim of which was to expel most ethnic Albanians from Kosovo.

In 1999, NATO intervened militarily to force Serbian forces to withdraw from Kosovo. A month before the bombing started, Seselj told a party rally that Albanians would suffer most from NATO's action.

“If NATO decides to bombs us, if America decides to go on with this aggression, Serbs will suffer, but there will be no Albanians in Kosovo anymore,” he said.

After the October 5, 2000, revolution toppled the Milosevic regime, Seselj and his party went into opposition with only few seats in parliament.

Three years later the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, ICTY, filed charges against Seselj, accusing him of persecution on political, racial and religious grounds, deportations and other inhumane acts as well as violation of the customs of war during conflicts in the former Yugoslavia from 1991 until 1993.

He voluntarily surrendered that year, but his trial did not begin for four years until 2007 after years of delays and obstructions including a hunger strike.

"Do not give [them] any Serbs after me, don't give them Radovan Karadzic, and don’t give them [Bosnian Serb commander] Ratko Mladic. They have no evidence that I participated, incited, concealed or urged war crimes," Seselj said in a public appearance before he surrendered.

"With their stupid charges against me they have come up against the greatest living legal Serb mind. I shall blast them to pieces," he added.

Apart from the war crime proceedings, Seselj has been sentenced for contempt of court after he disclosed the identity of a protected witness.

Vojislav Seselj during trials in front of the ICTY            Photo:Beta

During his trial, Seselj has defended himself, refusing legal help from the ICTY.

“You falsely presented this man with a bird's nest on top of his head as my defence lawyer. He will never be my defence lawyer. You brought actors here to act as my defence lawyers but they will never be my defence lawyers. They are your spies,” he told the court.

He has refused to acknowledge that he participated in any crime that the ICTY charged him with, but he has not backtracked on his political ideas.

"I am being tried for atrocious war crimes that I allegedly committed through hate speech as I preached my nationalist ideology of which I am proud,” Seselj said in one appearance before the Tribunal.

Recently, Seselj obtained media attention after having a heart surgery on January 12 and he has subsequently been hospitalized on several occasions.

His medical condition has been, however, politicised by members of his party who have accused the Tribunal of mistreating their leader in order to kill him.

In the same month, after he returned to the trial, Seselj demanded 2 million euro in damages, accusing the Tribunal of violating his human rights during his detention.

The prosecution has called for 28 years imprisonment for Seselj, stating that it has been proven that he committed war crimes and that he showed no remorse.

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