Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Seselj At The Gates

Having resigned from the Serbian government and disassociated himself from the peace agreement, Vojislav Seselj is now poised to bid for power.
By a journalist

The resignation of Serbia's deputy Prime Minister Vojislav Seselj and the withdrawal of his ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS) from the government is subject of much speculation among what remains of Yugoslavia's chattering classes.


Is this, political analysts wonder, a step towards the oft-predicted civil war in Serbia? Or is it yet another cynical ploy by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to retain power by presenting himself as the moderate alternative to Seselj?


The SRS--which has the second largest political presence in the Serbian parliament with 75 deputies and held 15 out of 35 ministerial posts in government--pulled out of the ruling coalition because it could not accept the terms of the peace agreement ending the war in Kosovo.


In explaining his resignation, Seselj claimed the peace accord was a total capitulation to NATO's demands and while he did not mention Milosevic by name, he made it clear that he held the President personally responsible.


In an interview for the biggest-selling Belgrade daily Glas Javnosti, Seselj forecast a stormy period ahead for Serbia, saying that after Kosovo there will come similar temptations in Montenegro, Sandzak and Vojvodina. And he warned darkly that the greatest risk to Serbia would now come from "traitors" who would be working against the interests of the country with American encouragement. Seselj also predicted instances of food rationing and social unrest.


In contrast, Milosevic has been travelling the length and breadth of Serbia, extolling the virtues of the peace agreement, promising economic rebirth and seemingly presenting himself as the one man who can keep Seselj's extremism at bay.


A number of analysts see the apparent conflict between the two men as nothing more than a co-ordinated ploy designed to bolster Milosevic's position. However, although Seselj has in the past served Milosevic in this way, others believe that the radical is now positioning himself ready for the day when Milosevic can no longer control Serbian society.


In the working class suburbs of the largest Serbian cities, the electoral bedrock of the ruling parties, the population is already on the verge of hunger. Moreover, the prospects are worse since, according to official statistics, some 500,000 workers lost their jobs during the war. An estimated 50 per cent of the population are now out of work.


In these circumstances, it is difficult to see how the employment and reconstruction programme drawn up by the Serbian parliament can have much impact. If, therefore, Milosevic's promises prove hollow and conditions deteriorate as predicted, Seselj may well make a bid for power. In such a case, the threat of civil war becomes real.


Some people here are already comparing the situation in Serbia today to the Weimar years in Germany at the end of the First World War. Like Germany, Serbia has been defeated militarily and humiliated, its economy is in tatters and it faces massive social dislocation.


At the same time, like Germans in the aftermath of the First World War, Serbs have not understood the real causes of their defeat and are convinced that they have suffered an injustice which they did not deserve.


In the absence of any objective reporting, Seselj stands to be the ultimate beneficiary of the frustration felt by ordinary Serbs. Indeed, the greater Serbia's social and political disintegration, the better his chances of gaining power.


In this respect, his appeal does indeed resemble that of Hitler who managed to win over Germany's defeated and humiliated population with his demagogic populism. Moreover, like Hitler, Seselj could achieve his goals via the democratic process.


In Serbia's last presidential elections in 1996, Seselj was narrowly defeated by Milosevic's candidate Milan Milutinovic in a poll which observers believe was marred by widespread fraud in the latter's favour. Moreover, since then, Seselj's popularity has risen among the electorate and he has acquired key allies in the upper echelons of the police and army.


The author is an independent journalist from Novi Sad whose identity has been concealed.