When the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party emerged as the leader by far in Serbia's recent presidential and parliamentary elections, some politicians in Belgrade blamed pressure from the UN war crimes tribunal for the apparent resurgence of nationalism. Experts say such claims are baseless -- and that the problem was, at least in part, due to the government's own lack of political will to deal with the past.
Prague, 8 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Vojislav Kostunica, the leader of the moderately nationalist Democratic Party of Serbia, said after 28 December 2003 early general elections that "The success of the Serbian Radical Party was determined by the politics of the incumbent, as well as by the politics from abroad toward Serbia."
The poll saw the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party of war crimes suspect Vojislav Seselj obtain nearly one-third of the vote.
Other politicians also claimed that the strong showing for Seselj's Radical Party could be attributed to the UN tribunal and the relentless pressure it placed on Belgrade to hand over suspects accused of committing atrocities during the wars of the 1990s.
Objections to the court are heard regularly in Belgrade, where many see the tribunal as being biased against Serbs.
The latest strains came in October, when the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) published indictments for war crimes in Kosovo committed in 1999 against four Serbian army and police generals. Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic said the indictments -- which came in the middle of the campaign for the November presidential vote -- were a "blow to reforms in Serbia."
The Radicals led by far in that poll, but it was invalidated due to low voter turnout.
Experts, however, say pressure from the court had little to do with the ultranationalists' strong showing.
Bogdan Ivanisevic of New York-based Human Rights Watch told RFE/RL that it is enough to compare the outcome of the recent elections with previous polls to see why such claims are not valid.
"If you compare these results with the results in 2000, the last presidential elections in which [Slobodan] Milosevic, the former president of Serbia and Yugoslavia, [was elected], then you will see that Milosevic won more votes three years ago than the parties supporting his line won two weeks ago in the parliamentary elections in Serbia," Ivanisevic said.
Ivanisevic says that what he calls "militant nationalism" cannot be resurrected, since it's never gone away in the three years since democratic forces ousted Milosevic. But he says the tribunal is not to blame for that.
"I think it would really be, and it is, meaningless to accuse the tribunal for this. It is really for the Serbs themselves, and in particular it was for the Serbian government that was in power in the past three years to offer something to Serbian citizens here that would make the nationalistic perspective less attractive for them. But the government, by and large, failed to do that," Ivanisevic said.
Natasa Kandic, director of the Belgrade-based Fund for Humanitarian Law, says the fact that political parties including two of the four indicted generals on their lists did not fare much better in the December parliamentary election proves that patriotic appeals carried little weight with voters.
Militant nationalism was not defeated also in part because of the government's apparent lack of political will to deal with the atrocities committed by Serbian forces during the wars. Since 1996, Serbian courts have tried only five war crimes cases -- and then, the suspects were all foot soldiers and not officials in any positions of command.
War crimes expert Kandic says Serbia's democratic government was wrong in believing it would be enough to remove Milosevic.
"The international criminal tribunal and trials at The Hague tribunal are not a priority," she says. "The war crimes issue -- war crimes responsibility -- also is not a priority in this society. It is not a priority of the institutions. Until today, we [haven't had] a debate in parliament on the past abuses, about responsibility. And that is, in my opinion, the main problem why democracy in Serbia is going too slowly."
Given Belgrade's faltering record in the past, what are the prospects for future cooperation with the war crimes tribunal?
There seems to be little doubt that -- since Serbia's progress toward European Union and NATO structures would be impossible without such cooperation -- the future government will want to be seen as fulfilling its international obligations. Which, Kandic says, does not mean they may not try to hamper the work of the tribunal.
The ICTY is pressed for time, as it has to issue its last indictments by the end of 2004. A new government dominated by Kostunica's party could try to block its work by further denying access to needed documents.
Wrapping up its mission, the ICTY also plans to start transferring some minor war crimes cases to local courts. Following what is perceived as a nationalist resurgence, prosecuting such cases in Belgrade may be even more difficult as witnesses from other ethnic communities may be even more reluctant to testify.
In the final count, war crimes expert Kandic says, some war crimes perpetrators -- not the "small fish," but people who were in positions of real power -- may go unpunished.