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Opinion in Serbia is sharply divided over whether ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj's conviction on war crimes charges should prevent him from taking up a seat in parliament.

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.”

Vladimir Lazarevic enters the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in The Hague in January 2014. He was convicted for crimes against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo but is now a lecturer at the Serbian Military Academy.
Vladimir Lazarevic enters the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in The Hague in January 2014. He was convicted for crimes against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo but is now a lecturer at the Serbian Military Academy.

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.”

The leader of the Night Wolves, Aleksandr Zaldostanov (aka The Surgeon) and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sevastopol, Crimea, in August 2017

The motorcycle club whose members were at the vanguard of Russia's occupation of Crimea, nicknamed "Putin's Angels" by the media, is on the road again.

Members of the Night Wolves were due in the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina's Serb-majority entity Republika Srpska, Banja Luka, on March 21 and were expected to hold a press conference in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, around a week later.

They have planned or taken provocative rides before -- including a Victory Day trip to Berlin and a candlelighting at Katyn, where Josef Stalin is said to have ordered the execution of tens of thousands of Polish officers during World War II -- and are targeted by U.S. and Canadian sanctions for their thuggish support of nonuniformed Russian forces during the takeover of Crimea in 2014.

The group's agenda during its tour of what it calls the "Russian Balkans" remains unclear, and it is hard to know whether it somehow reflects Kremlin geopolitical goals or just a solid effort at trolling.

Atlantic Council senior fellow Dimitar Bechev recently argued that while Russia is increasingly active in the Western Balkans, its influence is not as great as generally believed.

Promoting his new book Rival Power: Russia In Southeast Europe at the London School of Economics, Bechev expressed concern that Western media were obsessed with the idea of Russia as a "partner-turned-enemy" in the Balkans and the Middle East.

"In reality, if Russia was increasingly present in the Balkan region, it was not always because it was imposing itself but because local powers and elites were engaging Russia to serve their own domestic agendas," Bechev said.

The Slavic culture and the Orthodox faith of many of the region's inhabitants have also meant that the "narrative structure [already] tends to favor Russia" in the Balkans and makes it fertile ground for the possible exercise of Russian "soft power."

But Jasmin Mujanovic, author of the book Hunger & Fury: The Crisis Of Democracy In The Balkans, is less certain that Russia's influence in the region has been overstated.

"Russia's influence in Bosnia and the Balkans is obviously not as significant as it is in its immediate 'near abroad.' But that does not mean Moscow does not have concrete strategic aims in the region, aims which from the perspective of the political and democratic integrity of local polities are incredibly destructive."

According to Mujanovic, the combination of clear Russian objectives in the region and the desperation of some local politicians to cling to power (such as Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik) makes for an explosive mix.

"[O]ne does not militarize their police, or hire paramilitaries, or purchase missiles if they are not prepared to use them," said Mujanovic. He suggested that some individuals were prepared to use violence to sabotage the Bosnian elections in 2018 and "counting on support from Russia and assorted Russian proxies to do it." He did not provide specific evidence of any such plans.

"Russia's objective is simple: Keep Bosnia out of NATO and the EU," Mujanovic added. "Moscow wants to ensure that the country remains an ethnically fragmented basket case in the heart of the Balkans."

Into this volatile context ride the Night Wolves.

On their Facebook page, the Russian bikers said their nine-day tour through Bosnia and Serbia would cover 2,000 kilometers after leaving Belgrade on March 19. Two of the Night Wolves have been denied entry to Bosnia on security grounds, including the group's leader, Aleksandr Zaldostanov, aka "The Surgeon."

Following their role in the Ukrainian conflict, the Night Wolves were blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury in 2014 and a year later prevented from riding through Poland on their way to Berlin to mark the 70th anniversary of the Allies' victory over Nazi Germany.

Yet these concerns apparently are not shared by authorities in Serbia and in Republika Srpska, in Bosnia.

"The different perceptions of the [Night Wolves'] tour are a reflection of the Balkan political landscape, including differences in relations with Russia," Belgrade-based analyst Bosko Jaksic told RFE/RL's Balkan Service.

"Republika Srpska in particular is a bastion of pro-Russian sentiment and currently the main focus of Russian activity in the Western Balkans," Jaksic added. "In Serbia, meanwhile, there are numerous organizations, groups, associations, and even political parties that do not hide their admiration for Russia. [This tour] among other things should serve as a warning that Russia is ramping up its influence, relying both on existing local support and using every available means and avenue to project its soft power."

Jaksic said he believes the Balkans became a key part of Moscow's strategic agenda following the onset of the Ukrainian crisis and is now a target for its soft-power arsenal.

"These so-called 'Putin's Angels' are undoubtedly a part of a very political agenda," Jaksic said.

It appears that in Republika Srpska, where only around half of the population has access to the Internet, trolls must deliver their message in person.

"The leader of the Night Wolves...uses his motorbike like a scalpel to make an incision and separate parts of the Balkans from the West, bringing them closer to Russia. He does so while preaching pan-Slavism and Christian Orthodoxy, two favorite themes of Russian propaganda," Jaksic said.

While the West equivocates over the Balkans, Mujanovic complained, "Moscow and Banja Luka will not squander an easy opportunity to 'create new facts' on the ground," adding that even a small dose of violence could be fatal to "a polity already as fragmented as Bosnia."

"This," Mujanovic said, "is the most significant threat to the Dayton peace [accords] since 1996."

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

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About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.

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