Following his international conviction on war crimes charges, opinion in Serbia is sharply divided over whether ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj should be allowed to take his seat in that country's parliament.
The Radical Party leader was sentenced to 10 years in prison by The Hague tribunal on April 11 for crimes committed during wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The ruling followed a partial reversal of his earlier acquittal on a wider range of charges.
Seselj was given time served after spending almost 12 years in pretrial detention at The Hague. Having been extradited voluntarily in 2003, he was released in 2014 on grounds of ill-health and was not present for the sentencing. Reinvigorated by his return, his party won 22 seats in the 2016 Serbian parliamentary elections.
Article 88 of Serbia's parliamentary election legislation disqualifies any elected official from holding a seat if he or she is sentenced to more than six months in prison. But the national assembly’s administrative council presided over by ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) member Aleksandar Martinovic is responsible for implementing this rule; Martinovic has appeared untroubled by Seselj’s conviction for crimes against humanity, reacting with surprise when asked whether the sentence would have any ramifications.
“What exactly is problematic about [Seselj’s] seat? He has served his time already,” Martinovic told RFE/RL's Belgrade bureau in an interview. He said he saw no reason for the council to deliberate on the matter.
[I'm] proud of all the war crimes and crimes against humanity that were attributed to me, and I am ready to repeat them in the future.”-- Vojislav Seselj
Seselj’s own Radical Party was unsurprisingly quick to defend him. His deputy, Nemanja Sarovic, argued that “Vojislav Seselj stood for election and was elected after he had served that sentence.” Sarovic added that “there is no basis in the Serbian Constitution or law for stripping [Seselj] of his seat.”
Seselj himself was characteristically unrepentant. Speaking to both AP and RFE/RL’s Belgrade bureau, he said that he was “proud of all the war crimes and crimes against humanity that were attributed to me, and I am ready to repeat them in the future.”
But others have expressed concern over Seselj’s presence in parliament.
Although convinced that Seselj would not resign his seat, Progressive Party MP Dragan Sormaz said he was “uncomfortable sharing the bench with a convicted war criminal," suggesting that "it would send the wrong signal.”
Opposition MP Goran Bogdanovic was even more explicit, saying that allowing Seselj to remain in his parliamentary seat would signal Serbian parliamentary support for the crimes of which he has been convicted.
Nemanja Stjepanovic, of the Belgrade-based Center for Humanitarian Law, expressed even broader concern in connection with Seselj's fate.
“When it comes to Vojislav Seselj, we have to ask ourselves how we ended up here again,” Stjepanovic told RFE/RL. “How is it that the new generation, just like those before them who went to war in the 1990s, are once again taken in by his words and ideas, are amused by his cheap stunts," -- Seselj was notorious for mocking The Hague war crimes tribunal at every opportunity -- "are spellbound by his preaching, and are once more dreaming of a Great Serbia and fantasizing that this is attainable one way or another -- including through war?”
“As a society, we have not moved an inch from that time when the wars were being fought in the 1990s,” said Stjepanovic, adding that he was not surprised to see war criminals back in politics.
“It’s been happening for some time now. As one after another [war criminal is] released and given a ceremonial reception by the government on their return, they are being ushered back into public institutions.”
Stjepanovic cited the case of Vladimir Lazarevic, convicted for crimes against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, who is a lecturer at the Serbian Military Academy.
Meanwhile, Lazarevic’s fellow inmate, Nikola Sainovic, who was convicted of similar crimes, was reappointed on his return from The Hague to the same post he occupied during the war and up to the time of his extradition, as a member of the Executive Council of the Serbian Socialist Party. l
Stjepanovic said that former Yugoslav People's Army officer Veselin Sljivancanin, who was also convicted of war crimes and released on time served, was being invited to speak at rallies for the governing Serbian Progressive Party, the party of President Aleksandar Vucic.
One of the troubling aspects of the trend, Stjepanovic said, is that war criminals are being held up as moral authorities within Serbian society.
“[War criminals] are allowed to occupy positions of trust, to instruct us, and to interpret the past for us," Stjepanovic said, "glossing over the mistakes and failures from that past that led to wars and to war crimes.”
A recent poll conducted by the Belgrade newspaper Danas suggested that 70 percent of Serbian citizens oppose allowing convicted war criminals to hold public office. In other words, the reopening of the halls of public institutions and parliament to convicted or accused war criminals appears to fly in the face of public opinion.
“Of course, it’s a normal response for anyone with common sense and a kernel of humanity inside them [to oppose the idea] that war criminals should serve in public institutions. However, it’s a different matter when specific cases are raised," Stjepanovic said of the apparent discrepancy. "If we were to run the same poll but instead of the generic question ask whether Vojislav Seselj, after being convicted of war crimes, should be stripped of his seat in parliament, the percentage of those who would agree with this would be much lower. Even many of those who are not his party’s supporters would not want to see him leave public life.”
It is what Stjepanovic likened to regarding someone as "‘our’ or ‘their’ war criminal.”
Stjepanovic invoked the adage about those failing to recall the past being doomed to repeat it, with a twist: “It is a pernicious trend, and it ensures that those ideas from the past are never extinguished, so that one day, when the right time comes, they can be fully revived to terrible effect.”