If Vojislav Seselj's "not guilty" verdict had been announced a day later, I would have considered it an April Fools' joke. Of course it's not -- and this tragic miscarriage of justice threatens all the potential benefits that Bosnia-Herzegovina and the region might have gained from the recent conviction of Radovan Karadzic by the same tribunal. It also raises the question: To what extent can a decision by an international court undermine our trust in justice and turn a war criminal into a hero?
There were strong emotional reactions to the verdict in the Balkan capitals -- Belgrade, Sarajevo, Zagreb, Podgorica -- and in cities like Tuzla (120 kilometers northeast of Sarajevo), or even villages like Hrtkovci, ethnically cleansed in 1992 by Seselj and his paramilitary units. Even more dispiriting than the verdict were the arguments given by The Hague judges, writes Daniel Serwer, a Balkan expert, in his immediate reaction to the news of Seselj's acquittal.
The judges concluded that he was not responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity, but merely of propagating ethnic nationalism. However, Seselj didn't just talk the talk. In addition to his rhetoric about creating an ethnically pure "Greater Serbia," he helped set up paramilitary units to carry out his plan. Serbian paramilitaries drove tens of thousands of Muslims and Croats from their homes in eastern Bosnia and around Sarajevo, killing at least 900 people. Prosecutors have said they will appeal, but the damage after the "not guilty" verdict has been done, and it is hard to find an excuse for The Hague judges.
Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, the leader of the conservative Serbian Progressive Party, could well become an unlikely victim of the decision. Despite having a comfortable majority in the Serbian parliament, he has called for new elections, scheduled for April 24, to strengthen his mandate. At the time he had no reason to worry, as the opposition was fragmented and weak. Seselj's far-right Serbian Radical Party was a marginal force only a week ago. However, in the new reality following The Hague verdict, Seselj has emerged as a new Serbian hero and national "saint."
Posters with his face have already surfaced celebrating him as having slain the dragon of the hated international court. His acquittal was celebrated not only in his party headquarters in Belgrade, but in many places across Serbia and Republika Srpska (one of the two constituents of Bosnia's federal system), where The Hague tribunal is seen as an "anti-Serb" entity. In a political culture that is no stranger to paranoia and conspiracy theories, Vucic already finds it hard to believe that The Hague tribunal does not care about the Serbian elections, and that the Seselj verdict was not deliberately timed to prevent him from shoring up his domestic power base. Speaking about the Seselj ruling at a press conference in Belgrade, Vucic bitterly inquired whether the tribunal was aware of the upcoming elections as they announced the verdict. "They knew," he said, answering his own rhetorical question.
In November 2014, The Hague tribunal declared Seselj "gravely ill" and granted him a provisional release. Barely two years later, his election campaign is suddenly gathering momentum. Having "vanquished" The Hague, he is now promising to bring Kosovo back to Serbia and to build stronger relations with Russia.
All the ghosts of the last Balkan wars are coming back to haunt the region. Disabled war veterans in Tuzla, a Bosnian town that suffered greatly during the 1992-95 war, harshly denounced The Hague tribunal for the Seselj verdict, and made a gloomy forecast: "For now we remain in civilian dress, but for the next press conference we will be wearing our military uniforms," RFE/RL's Maja Nikolic reported. Those who lost their limbs, or had been seriously wounded in the conflict, are ready to fight again. For the first time since the war they felt compelled to admit as much, and in public.
In the village of Hrtkovci, in the Serbian province of Vojvodina, most residents were undoubtedly happy to see Seselj acquitted of all charges. It means that they no longer have to worry about their former Croatian neighbors, who were forced to leave their homes following an orchestrated campaign of violence and intimidation. On May 6, 1992, Seselj personally presided over the final act of the expulsion, speaking before a village assembly where the names of those who had to leave were read out.
One stubborn Croat who remained in the village told an RFE/RL reporter on March 31, that his friends who left had knives placed on their throats. There were exemplary murders, assaults, beatings, and thinly veiled threats of further violence. But The Hague judges concluded that these people had a desire to join their own ethnic kin across the border in Croatia and that Seselj's paramilitary units merely facilitated their move. Around 25,000 people were expelled from Vojvodina and 25 killed, just because they had the wrong last name.
My personal memory of Seselj goes back to the end of 1991, when he drew up an infamous list of Belgrade-based journalists who should be killed. Among them were Muslims, Croats, and even Serbs who refused to support extreme nationalism. One of them was my good friend Azra Nuhefendic, a Sarajevo-born journalist who had worked for Radio Belgrade for over 10 years.
As soon as the list was made public, I phoned Nuhefendic and told her to come to Sarajevo. She rejected the idea of leaving Belgrade and said she was curious to find out how she would lose her job. She did not have long to wait. One day her pass card for the radio station simply stopped working and Nuhefendic could not get into her newsroom. There was no written notice or any other formal announcement.
Soon after that my home city of Sarajevo was besieged, while Seselj was busy with his ethnic-cleansing campaign in Vojvodina. From time to time, I would receive short letters from Nuhefendic, delivered by foreign journalists who were covering the war in the Balkans. She was still in Belgrade, working as an interpreter, subject to late-night visits from the Serbian secret police and daily threats. Yet by remaining there she was able to help her parents trapped in Grbavica, a Serbian-controlled part of Sarajevo during the war. Any money she was able to make was spent on powdered eggs, tins, flour, salt, oil, and other basic foodstuffs that she would pack and send with humanitarian convoys organized by ADRA, a relief organization run by the Adventist church, or with foreign journalists.
Nuhefendic believed that if foreign journalists were occasionally seen dropping by her parents' place, it would improve their chances of staying alive. News of people with Muslim last names being killed in Grbavica was reaching her through those who made the journey in the opposite direction.
Following Karadzic's conviction for genocide and crimes against humanity, there was genuine hope that it would allow Bosnia and Serbia to draw a line under the recent past and move on. And then there was the Seselj verdict. If ethnic cleansing can be interpreted as "humanitarian resettlement," just as it was often defined by the perpetrators themselves, then instead of the future being a clean slate, it is the past that is once again being rewritten. Meanwhile, the future is at risk of resembling the past.