Serbian Ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj's Acquittal: A Travesty of Justice

On March 31, 2016, the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) controversially acquitted Serbian nationalist Vojislav Seselj of war crimes. The verdict prompted immediate condemnations from Croatian Prime Minister Tihomir Oreskovic, who described the acquittal as an "embarrassment for the Hague Tribunal", and from victims of the Yugoslavian civil wars who linked Seselj inextricably to Slobodan Milosevic's policies of ethnic cleansing.

Seselj responded to these criticisms by praising the verdict as a victory for innocent Serbs facing unjust prosecution by Western legal institutions, and pledged to continue his campaign for a parliamentary seat in the April 24 Serbian lower house elections. The popularity of Seselj's Serbian far-right faction has declined significantly since last year's demonstrations, which included the burnings of EU, NATO and Croatian flags by ultra-nationalists. Nevertheless, his continued presence in Serbian politics has been regarded as a setback for Belgrade's hopes of transitioning Serbia towards European integration.

The ICTY's acquittal of Seselj is a major blow to its legitimacy as an agent of punishing international law violations, as the evidence against Seselj was overwhelming. It also threatens to erode the progress towards normalized relations between Serbia and other Balkans states that has been a vital step towards the eventual integration of the entirety of former Yugoslavia into the European fold.

How Seselj's Acquittal Undermines the Credibility of the ICTY

While the credibility of the ICTY had been challenged by world leaders, like Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who accused the tribunal of covering up crimes by non-Serb suspects, and by Serbian nationalist groups, questions surrounding the relevance and fairness of the ICTY have reached a fever pitch since the Seselj acquittal. The ICTY justified their not guilty verdict with a veiled reasonable doubt case, contending that Seselj's volunteers committed crimes but that there was no evidence that Seselj knew that crimes were being perpetrated or that he personally ordered mass murders.

Upon even a superficial examination of the evidence in the Seselj case, this conclusion is a dubious one. Seselj openly incited violence during his speeches, claiming that for Serbs, the Second World War had not ended (a veiled reference to need for Serbian retribution against war crimes perpetrated by pro-Nazi Ustase forces in Croatia), and warning that "rivers of blood" would flow in Bosnia if his goal of creating a Greater Serbia faced opposition.

His support for Milosevic's ultranationalist policies and implicit endorsement of the use of force against Bosnia's secession from the Yugoslav federation is undeniable. There is also compelling evidence of his direct involvement in the atrocities inspired by this rhetoric, with a witness named by the court as VS1064 describing the burial of 88 men in a mass grave by Seselj's forces.

This atrocity was one of many crimes against humanity perpetrated by Serbian paramilitary forces under Seselj's command, and is compelling proof that the Serbian regime's vision of a Greater Serbia was a "criminal project" as prosecutors alleged and not a mere "political project" that the court ruled. The court's ruling that the forced busing of non-Serbs from territories that Seselj wanted to incorporate into Greater Serbia was a "humanitarian mission" and not ethnic cleansing, is an egregious sugarcoating of the actions of Serbian paramilitaries.

The trial process also constituted a victory for Serbian ultra nationalists seeking to prevent war crimes suspects from being held accountable for their actions under international law. Seselj surrendered himself to a UN war crimes tribunal in 2003, but was kept in prison for 11 years without clear progress towards trial before his temporary release on medical grounds in November 2014. Immediately after his acquittal, Seselj announced that he was seeking 14 million euros in compensation from the ICTY.

In order to demonstrate to the Serbian public and a wider international audience that he regarded the ICTY as little more than a kangaroo court, Seselj condemned the tribunal vociferously as being an illegal American proxy and even held a hunger strike in 2006 to win sympathy for his cause. The massive delays in the trial process and the tribunal's lack of control over proceedings would have been issues regardless of the verdict. But with Seselj's acquittal, they can provide further ammunition for Serbian war crimes suspects to discredit the courts in the eyes of the watching public in Belgrade and the international community.

How Seselj's Acquittal Could Impact Inter-State Diplomacy in the Balkans

The ICTY's acquittal of Seselj has resulted in a wide range of responses from political leaders in former Yugoslavia. The far-right Serbian Radical Party, formed by Seselj in 1991 and a leading political force during his stint as Deputy Prime Minister of Serbia from 1998-2000, has the potential to gain momentum in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Seselj's demagoguery against Western legal institutions, which included a reference to the execution of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who he described as his "friend," and his claims that he was persecuted on ideological grounds, strikes a chord with far-right factions in Serbia resistant to European integration.

The removal of the threat of extradition from Belgrade will undoubtedly embolden his cause, but Seselj faces an uphill political climb. A poll taken before his acquittal revealed that his party had just 5% support amongst Serbs voting in the parliamentary election. Nevertheless, Serbia's Prime Minister Alexander Vucic expressed concern that his Serbian Progressive Party's hold on power could be made more vulnerable as a result of the acquittal. Seselj believes the decision could increase the popularity of his party to above 25% by election day.

Should the Radical Party gain a great deal of political momentum as a result of the ICTY ruling, relations between Serbia and other former Yugoslav republics could sour further. As Serbian president Tomislav Nikolic was a member of Seselj's Radical Party until 2008, the capacity of the Serbian government to openly oppose the ICTY's verdict in order to de-legitimize Seselj is almost non-existent. Any hard-hitting statement by Nikolic or Vucic would likely cause a mass wave of defections by Serbian right-wingers and populists, away from the moderate conservative Serbian Progressive Party to Seselj's Radical Party.

Yet a failure to take a strong stance on this issue will undoubtedly provoke opposition from other leaders in the Balkans. Croatian Prime Minister Oreskovic speaking from Vukovar described the damage wrought by Seselj to the town and decried his complete lack of remorse for the brutality he oversaw. Bosnian Prime Minister Denis Zvidsic echoed Oreskovic's position condemning international courts for letting Seselj's aggression against Bosnia go unpunished. The head of Bosnia's Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Foundation described the acquittal as "madness squared" and the "collapse of international justice."

These sentiments on such an emotionally charged issue could escalate tensions within former Yugoslavia. Despite pleas from German and European politicians for a rapproachment between Serbia and Croatia, Croatia has threatened to obstruct Serbia's accession to the EU. Croatia's new foreign minister Miro Kovac inflamed tensions by rejecting the idea that Serbia and Croatia are part of a common "region," instead preferring the term "neighborhood."

Vucic also recently clashed with former Bosnian president Bakir Izetbegovic over a potential genocide lawsuit from Sarajevo against Serbia, claiming that such a provocative move could lead to a "spiral of violence." At a time when Serbia is trying to ease tensions with Croatia and Bosnia in order to demonstrate to European leaders that it has moved beyond the Milosevic era of genocide and belligerence, the backlash resulting from Seselj's acquittal is an unwelcome setback.

The ICTY's mystifying decision to acquit Seselj has left the court's reputation in tatters just days after the successful prosecution of Bosnian Serb war criminal Radovan Karadzic, and threatens to reopen a powder keg of regional tensions that have brewed as a result of a long history of conflict. Serbia's leadership has to tread carefully in response to Seselj's acquittal in order to ensure that moderate political forces remain dominant and that the country's EU ambitions do not get subsumed by the fireworks following the ICTY's latest verdict.