Yesterday the Croatian government has recalled his ambassador from Serbia for consultation after the war crimes suspect and leader of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), Vojislav Seselj, burned the Croatian flag at a meeting in Belgrade. Seselj has been in custody from 2003 – when he voluntarily surrendered to the International Criminal Court for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) – until November 2014 when he was provisionally released due to his deteriorating health condition. However, on 30 March 2015 ICTY ordered Seselj’s return to custody because he violated the release conditions by stating that he would not return to the Tribunal for the verdict in his war crimes trial.
Back to the nationalist ’90 rhetoric
Although Seselj and his party are politically close to irrelevant – SRS was split apart and has not met the 5% threshold to enter the parliament – Seselj and his pro-war great Serbia nationalist rhetoric and statements after his release have caused disgrace among war victims and new diplomatic rifts between Serbia and Croatia. Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic (Serbian Progressive Party, SNS) stated that the ICTY’s decision to release Seselj and then recall him again to custody was intended to undermine his government. Seselj was being used by foreign opponents to ‘shake up’ the administration and undermine the policies of his ruling SNS, Vucic said. “When they do not like what Serbia is doing, the fact it has its own stance, that it won’t impose sanctions [on Russia], that it wants to be a friend with everyone – they release him [Seselj] from the box and wait for us to get scared, he added.
Next to the statements of foreign opponents trying to destabilize Serbia, there is a strong feeling among Serbia’s government representatives that Croatia is using every opportunity to raise the tension between the two countries for internal political purposes. Director of the Office for Kosovo and Metohija of the Serbian government, Aleksandar Vulin, said that Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic “thinks his party lost the [presidential] elections because he did not criticized Serbia enough and did not talk badly enough about Serbia and Serbs”. Croatian Minister for Defenders, Predrag Matic, said that for Vulin he has the same massage as for Seselj: ‘get medical treatment’.
Back to the future
Although it is worrying how easily statements and incidents caused by Seselj have further cooled down the relations between Serbia and Croatia and brought back memories of the nationalist rhetoric of the ’90-ies, it is expected that the leaders of the two countries will solve the rift in a European way and focus on good neighboring relations and joint future in the EU, of which Croatia has become member in 2013 and Serbia is a candidate countries opening the accession negotiations. Serbia’s PM Vucic said that pictures of the burning Croatian flag are bad images coming from Belgrade and that he will call Croatian Prime Minister to discuss the case and ease the tensions. Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic (Social Democratic Party, SDP) stated that Seselj’s “extradition will not destabilize Croatia and the region and that it will show if Serbia is really a democratic state’. For the near future, however, we can expect Seselj to cause some more turmoil as he stated that he will not surrender voluntary to the Tribunal.