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24 Feb 17

Time Travel with Vucic and Seselj

Dejan Anastasijevic

When the main actors on the Serbian political stage are relics of the war years of the 1990s, it’s clear that the country’s past remains a threat to its future.

Aleksandar Vucic, Serbian Prime Minister. Photo: Beta

Living in Serbia often feels like living in the Tardis, the time-travelling police box from the famous television show ‘Doctor Who’.

It can quickly take you to another time-space. It’s bigger on the inside than the outside. But unlike the Doctor, you can’t always choose when and where you wish to be transported, and the trips are rarely amusing.

I had one of these Tardis moments this week, as I watched Vojislav Seselj, the leader of the Serbian Radical Party as the main guest on a popular television show. Seselj is without doubt the most notorious figure in Serbian political history.

During the reign of Slobodan Milosevic, he openly advocated a Greater Serbia and used his party as a recruitment pool for volunteer paramilitary units which wreaked havoc in Bosnia and Croatia.

At home, his thugs attacked critics of Milosevic, not just verbally but physically. To the outside world, he made Milosevic look reasonable, even respectable.

In 2003, Seselj was indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and went to The Hague, where he spent the 12 years in a detention unit. After a long and irregularity-ridden trial, he was acquitted in the first degree; the appeals process is ongoing.

In 2014, even before the sentence was passed, he was released on humanitarian grounds when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Today, seemingly in good health, he is running for president in the upcoming elections and the Serbian Radical Party is the third largest party in parliament.

The hour-long show on which Seselj appeared was broadcast on TV Pink, the most popular commercial channel in Serbia. It’s not a political, but an entertainment show, with actors and pop singers the usual guests.

This time an exception was made, and Seselj was given a full hour to crack jokes about the ICTY’s African judges (“degenerated monkeys”), war crimes victims (“invented”), the 1991 shelling of Dubrovnik (“screw Dubrovnik”) and so on. The studio audience cheered and clapped his every word.

That cheering and clapping must have triggered my personal Tardis, so I slipped back in time, to 1991, when the war in Yugoslavia was just beginning.

There was a very popular entertainment show at the time, called Minimax, and Seselj was on it. The most memorable thing he said then was that his volunteers, also known as Chetniks, had started killing Croats with rusty spoons “so pathologists can never determine whether they died from tetanus or from the wounds”. Everybody laughed.

Every good entertainer has a sidekick, and Seselj had two.

One was an elderly, grim-looking fellow, a former manager of a provincial cemetery; they called him The Gravedigger. His name is Tomislav Nikolic, and he is now the president of Serbia.

The other, tall, thin, and awkward, was Aleksandar Vucic, the current prime minister and, if the polls are right, the country’s future president.

When they split in 2008, when Seselj was still in detention, Vucic and Nikolic took most of the Serbian Radical Party to their new party, the Progressives, which they modelled as a modern pro-European, centre-right force.

Their earlier outrageous words and deeds – such as Vucic’s 1995 statement, just prior to the Srebrenica genocide, that “one hundred Muslims will be killed in retaliation for every Serb” – were forgotten.

Seselj called them traitors, and when he returned to Serbia, everybody expected he would seek revenge. They were wrong.

Seselj did criticise Nikolic (who is now a lame-duck president), but clearly decided to spare Vucic from any of his verbal attacks. During his one-hour rant on TV Pink, Seselj never once uttered Vucic’s name, although he is supposed to be his main rival in the upcoming elections.

Instead, he blasted other candidates. He has obviously chosen the role of ‘constructive opposition leader’, very similar to the one he played for Milosevic.

And just like during Milosevic’s time, Seselj is getting preferential treatment, access to high-rating television shows and front pages in government-friendly tabloids. In other words, he is clearly being nurtured for a major role in Serbia’s future.

It says a lot about Serbia that the same trio from the bad old 1990s – Seselj, Nikolic and Vucic – are dominating Serbian politics in 2017 (although the order is now reversed).

But it says even more about Vucic, who has clearly decided to accept an informal alliance with Seselj, and about his vision of the country’s future.

In Vucic’s Serbia of the future, there will be only two political parties, the Progressives as rulers and the Serbian Radical Party as loyal (and fake) opposition. The voters would be pushed into a position that their only two options would be the autocrat or the monster.

It’s not a place or time in which I’d like to spend the rest of my days. Does anyone have a clue how to get a real Tardis?

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