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

Shadow of Hague Falls Over Serbian Election

It is not just the far-right radicals who are refusing to face up to the issue of war crimes.
By Dragana Nikolic-Solomon

On the streets of Belgrade, slogans scrawled on walls proclaim that Vojislav Seselj, leader of the Serbian Radical Party, SRS, and an indicted war crimes suspect, is a hero. “Seselj srpski junak,” they read.

Beside this graffiti, one can also often see another slogan daubed in paint, “They are murdering Serbs in the Hague.”

The slogans are an apt illustration of how a great many Serbs feel towards the war crimes tribunal, and its attempt to meet out justice to those who perpetrated some of the worst atrocities Europe has seen since World War Two.

That feeling is one reason why Tomislav Nikolic, the SRS candidate in Serbia’s June 13 presidential election, is widely tipped to do well - or even win - the race.

Nikolic kicked off his election campaign at a rally in early May by reading out a letter to his imprisoned chief, now awaiting trial in a Hague jail, urging SRS supporters to oust the current government. He ended his speech by repeating the notorious war-cry of the 1990s, “Long live Greater Serbia!”

While Croatia is closing its Hague chapter, following chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte’s announcement that Zagreb was fully cooperating with the court, the success of a politician like Nikolic highlights the degree to which the war crimes issue remains as politicised - and unsolved - as ever in Serbia.

Cooperation with the tribunal has been at a standstill for months, and will remain so until both rounds of the presidential election are over at end of June.

The government of the moderate nationalist Vojislav Kostunica fears alienating hard-line voters, in spite of the stern complaints from The Hague to the UN Security Council that cooperation with Serbia is non-existent.

The transfer to the tribunal of four Serbian generals, wanted by the court over crimes in Kosovo in 1999, is being postponed until the presidential poll is over. Some even stood as candidates in last December’s parliamentary elections.

Nikolic’s party, though claiming it has moderated its policies since the 1990s, has hardly pretended to have turned over a new leaf.

SRS members of the Serbian parliament wear T-shirts with Seselj’s portrait on them while attending government sessions and in the presence of foreign visitors.

An SRS-controlled local authority near Belgrade has also declared some of Europe’s most controversial nationalists honorary citizens, such as French National Front leader Jean-Marie le Pen, and Russian ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky

SRS supporters attending presidential rallies flaunt T-shirts and badges with the faces of The Hague’s two most wanted suspects of all, the former Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic.

In a smuggled letter to his supporters, Seselj recently played up to his assumed role as national martyr. “I feel most pleasant when I observe the judges, prosecution, members of the secretariat and prison staff, all full of hatred and hopeless malice because they cannot break me,” he boasted.

While opening his presidential campaign, Nikolic also made it clear he was still a true believer in his boss’s extremist ideals. “As far as I am concerned, even if they indict Vojislav Seselj and charge him in front of 30 courts, he is innocent,” Nikolic said.

Andrej Nosov, executive director of the Youth Initiative, a think-tank pushing for an open debate on war crimes, told IWPR that Nikolic had successfully captured the Serbian public’s deep anti-Hague sentiments.

“Nikolic was the only presidential candidate who openly said he was against the extradition of war crime suspects to The Hague,” Nosov said.

At his final rally in Belgrade on June 9, Nikolic spelled this out. “I don’t want to hear any more that we are war criminals,” he said. “I do not want to arrest anyone. If someone wants my support for trials here, they can have it, but not for extraditions to The Hague.”

Nikolic’s Radicals are not alone on the Serbian stage in advocating total rejection of the Hague court’s right to try Serbian suspects, however. Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbian Socialist Party takes an identical line.

Its candidate on June 13, Ivica Dacic, told an election rally in Nis that the SPS would withdraw their current support for the ruling coalition if Kostunica attempted to transfer any Serbian citizens to the court.

But while the hard-liners make no secret of their total opposition to the tribunal, Serbia’s moderate parties, including those in the so-called “democratic bloc”, have simply ducked the issue.

Boris Tadic, of the Democratic Party, has barely mentioned war crimes in his campaign.

A lone exception to the policy of silence – or of outright condemnation – is Serbia and Montenegro foreign minister Vuk Draskovic, head of the Serbian Renewal Movement.

He has consistently maintained that Serbia must cooperate totally with the tribunal. It is an “international obligation”, he says. Refusing to deal with the court, he told IWPR, would leave the Serbs as “hostages of the indicted war crime suspects and the values of the Milosevic period”.

Draskovic is untypical. Dragan Marsicanin, candidate of the ruling Democratic Party of Serbia, espouses a fudged, “half-way” policy that contains element of all sides of the argument. He has called for what he styles a policy of “two-way” cooperation with The Hague that the court itself is highly unlikely to accept.

There is no doubt the tribunal “antis” have the support of most of the public.

Ranko, 46, told IWPR he could not respect the court because the US had backed it, “The Americans are behind the tribunal and they bombed our country,” he said.

“If it wasn’t for the Serbs, no one in The Hague would receive salaries,” Natasa, 41, sneered. “This court is not fair and does not treat the war crimes equally. No one has been held responsible for crimes committed against Serbs”.

Rights activists in Serbia say such attitudes are the fault of Serbia’s democratic governments since the fall of Milosevic in 2000, which failed to tackle the issue of responsibility.

They say the lack of a real public debate on war crimes has fuelled a popular sentiment that most Hague indictees are innocent men, “guilty” only of defending their people.

According to Natasa Kandic, director of the Humanitarian Law Centre, instead of opening the question of war crimes, the government of the late premier Zoran Djindjic, which took power after Milosevic’s fall, preferred to side with popular opinion.

The situation, she said, was even worse now, “There is a blockade on the subject of war crimes as far as the media is concerned.” She complained that instead of searching for truth, a culture of “solidarity with the indictees” was being promoted.

Andrej Nosov told IWPR, “Serbian politicians are not prepared to openly say that Zumra Salmerovic [a widow of one of the thousands of Muslims killed in Srebrenica] is still looking for the bones of her husband and wants to know what has happened to him.”

Sonja Biserko, of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, said, “Today’s Serbia moves about without a policy to the Hague tribunal and without any perception of its recent past.”

Dragana Nikolic-Solomon is IWPR project manager in Belgrade and Marcus Tanner is IWPR Balkan editor/trainer.