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News Analysis: ICTY's Order On Seselj Puts Belgrade In A Bind

Vojislav Seselj speaks during a news conference inside his Serbian Radical Party headquarters in Belgrade on April 2.

BELGRADE -- The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) continues to cause headaches for Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic.

First, the court made the surprise decision in November 2014 to grant provisional release to war crimes suspect and Serbian ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj. Seselj was barely off the runway in The Hague before he stated bluntly he would ignore any summons to return to the court.

Then ICTY appellate judges on March 30 ruled that Seselj had violated the terms of his release and ordered him to return to ICTY custody. That order obligates Belgrade to detain Seselj and hand him over to the tribunal, where he has been in custody since 2003.

Failure to comply could become an obstacle to Serbia's European-integration ambitions. But sending the populist, ailing Seselj back to a tribunal that has already held him for 12 years without convicting him is a politically perilous course for Vucic.

And some Serbian officials suspect that this is precisely what the ICTY was trying to do.

The ICTY's decision to order Seselj back to The Hague, said Aleksandar Vulin, Serbia's minister of labor, veteran, and social affairs, "is mainly aimed at the destabilization of Serbia and at toppling the government of Aleksandar Vucic and Vucic himself."

Vulin added that if the government moved to arrest Seselj, it could cause unrest in the streets. "This decision is directly aimed at toppling this government, and its goal is to remove Aleksandar Vucic from the political life of Serbia," he said.

Seselj, 60, responded to the court's order by burning a Croatian flag in front of a Serbian government building in Belgrade on April 1, a provocative act over which Serbia has launched a criminal investigation. Croatia recalled its ambassador for consultations.

"When I arrived [in Belgrade], I said that I will not go back of my own free will," Seselj said after the flag-burning. "I am not going to cooperate in any detention."

The following day, he said he intended to go to Croatia someday "armed on a tank."

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic with the EU's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini. Failure to hand Seselj over to the ICTY may pose an obstacle to Serbia's European-integration ambitions.
Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic with the EU's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini. Failure to hand Seselj over to the ICTY may pose an obstacle to Serbia's European-integration ambitions.

The Seselj case is as twisted and torturous as any in the history of the ICTY. Accused of plotting the ethnic cleansing of towns in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina during the conflicts of the 1990s and of making speeches that "planted the seeds of ethnic hatred" in the region, Seselj voluntarily surrendered himself to the ICTY in 2003.

But his trial got under way only in 2007 and the proceedings were concluded in 2012. However, Seselj managed to get one of the three judges hearing the case removed from the tribunal, leading to the appointment of a new judge and the postponement of the verdict from October 2013 until at least June 2015.

In the meantime, Seselj was diagnosed with colon cancer and underwent surgery in 2013. The court decided in November 2014 to grant him provisional release on health grounds and released him on condition that he not try to influence any witnesses in his case and that he return when summoned.

Analysts said ICTY officials were reluctant to risk Seselj dying in custody as former Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosovic did in 2006.

"So they essentially decided to dump him back into Serbia," University of Nottingham law professor Marko Milanovic told RFE/RL at the time of Seselj's release.

Seselj has since resumed his calls for a "Greater Serbia" that would encompass large parts of Croatia. He continues to head Serbia's ultranationalist Radical Party.

"The accused war criminal Seselj is trying to influence relations between Serbia and Croatia through hate speech, war rhetoric, and symbolism," the Croatian Foreign Ministry said in an April 1 statement.

Seselj (right), surrounded by his supporters, holds a burning U.S. flag during an antigovernment rally in Belgrade on March 24.
Seselj (right), surrounded by his supporters, holds a burning U.S. flag during an antigovernment rally in Belgrade on March 24.

Despite a long and tense political history between Vucic and Seselj (Vucic was once a top official on the Radical Party), Belgrade has been tolerant of Seselj's theatrics out of respect for his popularity on the political right, says Sonja Biserko, president of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia.

"They have tried some sort of normalization of Vojislav Seselj, but he is an embodiment of everything that happened during the 1990s," she says. "The lack of sensitivity to such a phenomenon is a matter of great concern."

So far, Belgrade has restricted its comments on the ICTY's order for Seselj to return, saying only it would issue a statement soon.

Vucic, in a statement on March 30, connected the ruling with a March 24 speech he gave criticizing the NATO bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999.

"If I expressed everything I feel at this moment in words, someone might think I am not able to hide my anger at the decisions made by certain people -- immoral decisions," he said. "It is clear my March 24 speech on the anniversary of the NATO aggression was not well received in the world."

The government in Croatia criticized the ICTY's decision to release Seselj, and many there have been outraged by Seselj's war-mongering. However, Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic tried to strike a conciliatory note in a statement on March 31.

The case "has unnecessarily stirred up negative emotions in the [Balkans] region and placed the Serbian government, to a certain extent, in an awkward position," Milanovic said. "On the one hand, I understand that. At the same time, I expected more explicit reactions from the Serbian government [to Seselj's inflammatory statements], as I said a few months ago."

However, Croatian parliament deputy speaker Zeljko Reiner said on April 2 that Zagreb was watching the Serbian government's reaction to Labor Minister Vulin's defense of Seselj.

"It is not important what Seselj did -- we all know who he is," Reiner said. "What is much more important is what the Serbian government will do about the statement of a government minister. We are very closely watching to see what they will do."

Robert Coalson contributed to this report from Prague