Šešelj's Shadow

Serbia is the Only Country in Which He, by No Means, Should be Free

/ by Svetlana Slapšak

As head of the Freedom of Expression Committee of the Association of Serbian Writers, I wrote two petitions, in the period between 1986 and 1988, in favor of cessation of the judicial persecution against Vojislav Šešelj and his release, as well as several articles published by Knjizevna reč. I have assisted a Mladina magazine journalist in establishing contact with him, and I took a photograph of Šešelj for the purpose of that interview. Later that year (1988), during a short stay in Ljubljana, Šešelj brought a large number of his books, so that I would sell them, if possible. We used all of those books as fuel during the rough winter of 1992-3 in Ljubljana, in scarcity and with an apartment full of refugees.

Vojislav Šešelj, born in 1954 was a Yugoslav dissident. He was convicted for “verbal delinquency,” and spent some time in jail, for publicizing that a high-placed nomenklatura member in Bosnia & Herzegovina had plagiarized his MA. He moved from Sarajevo to Belgrade and soon turned to radical Serbian nationalism. He founded the far-right Serbian Radical Party: the present Serbian President and Prime Minister were members of this party, but distanced themselves from Šešelj during his stay at ICTY (the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia). Šešelj organized paramilitary troops, was active in intimidating and pushing toward emigration the Croats from villages and cities in Northern Serbia (Vojvodina), and took part in the siege of Vukovar. Many violations of human rights, beatings and war crimes were related to his name. He himself boasted of many of such actions.

Illustrated by Branko Djukic.
He voluntarily surrendered to the ICTY in February 2003, just weeks before the murder of the Prime Minister of Serbia, Zoran Đinđić, by far-right paramilitary troopers. The trial began in November 2007. Šešelj's trial was marred by controversy: he went on a hunger strike for nearly a month, until finally being allowed to represent himself, regularly insulted the judges and court prosecutors once proceedings commenced, disclosed the identities of protected witnesses, and was penalized on three occasions for disrespecting the court. He did not call any witnesses in his defense. He also produced a huge number of manuscripts on his favorite topic - Serbian nationalism. Some were published in Serbia during his stay at the ICTY. He was permitted to temporarily return to Serbia in November 2014, to undergo cancer treatment. On 31 March 2016, he was acquitted in a first-instance verdict on all counts by the ICTY, pending appeal. He led the SRS in the elections in Serbia in April 2016 and his party won 23 seats in the parliament.

To this day, I believe that the evil brought and caused by Šešelj could have been, to a large extent, prevented, in a customary fashion which had been used in a broad circle of Belgrade elites in cases of dissidents escaping from other, harsher environments: such people would be positioned in some institution, at a corner desk with a typewriter. There were persons crazier than Šešelj who were both provided a livelihood and prevented from harming themselves and others that way. What prevented Dobrica Ćosić, Svetozar Stojanović or Ljuba Tadić (famous dissident authors who became Serbian nationalists) from making an obvious assessment, calming Šešelj down, and letting him write in peace? Only the fact that, according to my deep conviction, they wanted to take advantage of him. The assessment was perfectly wrong.

What is to be done with Šešelj today, following the surprising self-exposure of the International War Crimes Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, the admission of incompetence in matters of international law and the complete discrepancy with legal principles established by the UN? Serbian authorities can criticize the verdict, they can conduct a legal analysis of all consequences, seek ways of legal reaction. There is only one thing they must not do – namely be neutral in this matter, for Šešelj is now solely in their jurisdiction; because, as was clearly stated by the Hague judge, he is now a free citizen of the world, and Serbia is the only country in which he, by no means, should be free, according to applicable laws. Serbian judiciary should not have a problem with issuing an indictment for war crimes incited and committed against citizens of other states, and it should particularly have no problem with bringing charges for crimes against its own citizens, where the adjective “war” plays no role whatsoever. Due to tardiness, incompetence or any other reason detectable in the judiciary, Šešelj escaped domestic justice, surrendering to the Hague court just prior to the murder of Zoran Djindjić. Now is the time for the judiciary to catch up with what has been lost and, aided by the material gathered by the International Tribunal, assess the sequence and manner of its acting.

Therefore, we should leave the Hague Tribunal be, as it has just issued a verdict upon itself and its legal reason and, after all, we should let this process continue, according to the rules still in force. We should also leave aside the catastrophically shortsighted prediction by the Serbian Government and its Prime Minister, and the trouble he has brought upon himself playing election games (early elections on April 24th). Finally, Šešelj has the right to be tried in a language understood by everyone, and in an environment where even his most fervent proponents are not prone to fall for tricks he has been selling at the Hague Tribunal. On behalf of all who have slipped on Šešelj’s “banana peel” (one of his “humorous” explanations for beatings of his political adversaries, executed by his thugs), whether surviving it or not, judicial processing of Šešelj’s case would finally erase the shadow, remove the fear, neutralize the haughtiness. And a part of the banished rationality – no matter how small it may be – would return to the citizens’ minds…

(From the website Peščanik, Beograd)

Svetlana Slapšak

trained in Classical Studies/Linguistics at the University in Beograd. Retired professor of Anthropology of Ancient Worlds and Anthropology of Gender at ISH, Ljubljana Graduate School of Humanities since 1996. Dean of ISH 2004-2014. Published cca 70 books. Writes academic books/articles, essays, novels, travelogue, drama and translates from Ancient Greek, Modern Greek, Latin, French, English, Slovenian and SCB languages.