Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Seselj On The Sidelines, Waiting For His Moment
With pro-democracy demonstrators and police clashing in the centre of Belgrade and opposition politicians seeking to mobilise the masses against the rule of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, Vojislav Seselj, the bete noir of Serbian politics, must feel that his day is nearing.
Indeed, the leader of the extremist Serbian Radical Party (SRS) feels confident enough that events are playing into his hands that he has even mocked the demonstrations, which have been organised by the Alliance for Change, and the demonstrators.
"People worry how they will get through the winter, how they will keep warm and how they will survive," he says. "Therefore, it is not bad that their lives are brightened by the entertainment that clowns like [opposition party leaders] Zoran Djindjic and Vuk Obradovic provide."
Generally considered by western analysts to be the worst possible replacement for the Yugoslav president, Seselj, 45, commands a large following among Serbs in both Serbia and Bosnia. His party won more than a third of votes in the last Serbia elections. Moreover, in Republika Srpska in Bosnia, his associate Nikola Poplasen was elected president in the last poll.
Originally from Bosnia himself, the 45-year-old Seselj was born and studied in Sarajevo where he was awarded a doctorate by the Law Faculty before he turned 23. Ironically, perhaps, his dissertation was entitled "The political essence of militarism and fascism, a contribution to the analysis of the Marxist critique of political forms of civil autocracy."
Despite having been a star student, Seselj rapidly fell foul of Yugoslavia's communist authorities where his increasingly extreme writings were banned. In 1984 a Sarajevo court sentenced him to eight years in prison, of which he served two. His political career took off after the fall of communism in 1990 when he presented himself as the modern-day successor to the Serb nationalist Chetnik movement.
Although in government and an advocate of a brutal clamp-down, Seselj will, nevertheless, likely escape blame for the violence, since it is Milosevic who is in charge and the target of the demonstrators' anger. Indeed, in many respects, Seselj is an opposition leader on the inside, positioning himself and his loyalists for an eventual coup.
Fundamental ideological differences divide Seselj's Radicals from Milosevic's Socialists and his wife Mira Markovic's Yugoslav United Left (JUL), even though the three parties are in coalition together. Moreover, Markovic has made it clear that she has no sympathy for Seselj, especially since his party has publicly been critical of the way in which JUL members control the country's finances.
Seselj formally resigned his post of vice president in the Serbian government together with other cabinet-level members of his party in June in response to the peace agreement, which admitted foreign troops into Kosovo. In this manner, he has maintained his nationalist credentials among the electorate. However, since nobody who resigned has been replaced, he and his lieutenants have also retained their positions in government.
The arrival of KFOR in Kosovo was a blow to Seselj since he had vowed during NATO's bombing campaign that foreign troops would never enter Kosovo. However, he has since regained confidence and has been repeatedly making high-profile attacks on the UN mission in Kosovo for failing to live up to their mandate and denouncing "internal enemies and collaborators of NATO."
Seselj's SRS also has 82 out of 250 deputies in the Serbian parliament making it the second largest party after Milosevic's Socialists who have 86. In the federal parliament, which contains MPs from both Serbia and Montenegro, the SRS has six deputies out of 40 in the lower house and 16 out of 138 in the upper house.
In addition, the SRS gained two vice-presidential and several ministerial seats in the latest reshuffle of the Yugoslav government. And in Serbia the party controls a number of important ministries, including the ministry of information.
Seselj's willingness to employ violence to achieve his political aims makes him a useful ally for Milosevic at present in his struggle with the pro-democracy opposition. However, most Serbian analysts believe that this alliance will hold only as long as Milosevic retains control over Serbia's security apparatus. The moment when Milosevic shows any weakness, Seselj will likely pounce.
The Yugoslav president certainly has good cause to be wary of Seselj, who is the only alternative leader with influence and sympathisers among the Yugoslav military and secret police. For not only is Seselj a powerful orator with an uncanny ability to pander to the prejudices and alienation of ordinary Serbs, but he is already on the inside and, according to sources in the SRS, steadily taking over key positions of power.
By resorting to violence to suppress unrest, Milosevic has entered terrain in which Seselj is clearly more at home. If and when there is a backlash, he who proves the most ruthless may well prevail.
Srdjan Staletovic is a regular IWPR contributor from Belgrade.
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