ICTY’s acquittal of Seselj poses risks for Serbia ahead of elections

ICTY’s acquittal of Seselj poses risks for Serbia ahead of elections

The ICTY’s acquittal of ultranationalist Serbian politician Vojislav Seselj has significant consequences for the future of Serbia, the Balkans, and Europe.

Since voluntarily surrendering in 2003, ultranationalist Serbian politician and lawyer, Vojislav Seselj, had been on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Seselj was a leading advocate of ethnic cleansing and used hate speeches to mobilize his supporters known as “Seselj’s Men” to commit atrocities against non-Serbs to achieve his goal of forming a “Greater Serbia” encompassing parts of former Yugoslav states. He was charged with a total of nine crimes, including six counts of war crimes and three counts of crimes against humanity.

On March 31, 2016, a three-judge panel at the ICTY ruled that Seselj was innocent on all nine counts. This ruling shocked the Balkans and the world, especially as it came only a week after another defendant, Radovan Karadzic, a former leader of the Bosnian Serbs, was sentenced to forty years in prison.

While the ICTY ruling may appear to be a minor issue, it highlights the fragile peace in the Balkan region and is likely to influence Serbian society, politics, and economy, as well as the country’s relations with its neighbors and the EU.

Impact on Serbia’s elections

At first glance, Vojislav Seselj’s acquittal may appear to be a victory for current Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic and his party, the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). Both he and President Tomislav Nikolic were Seselj’s closest ultranationalist allies before they distanced themselves from him to form their own party in 2008. The ICTY verdict serves to help justify their past roles during the violent breakup of the former Yugoslavia and bolsters their images.

Yet a deeper look suggests that the timing of Seselj’s acquittal could not have been worse for Vucic and the ruling party, as it coincided with Serbia’s preliminary election campaign set for April 24, 2016.

Although elections were not due for another two years, Prime Minister Vucic initiated snap elections, hoping to consolidate power. The ICTY verdict complicates Serbia’s elections because the views and goals of the current ruling party are the polar opposites of those of Seselj’s Serbian Radical Party (SRS).

The SNS is pro-West and aspires to make Serbia a member of the EU by 2020. Since coming to power, Vucic has taken measures to make the EU goal a reality by shying away from Russian influence, intensifying the crackdown on corruption and improving the country’s economy by attracting foreign direct investment. Seselj, on the other hand, is an ultranationalist who wants to align Serbia with Russia and opposes potential EU or NATO membership.

For now, Seselj’s acquittal is unlikely to dramatically alter the outcomes of the upcoming elections, but support for the SRS has increased after his release and the party currently exceeds the five percent vote threshold needed to return to parliament, increasing the likelihood that Seselj will be elected. This could tempt back some of Vucic’s supporters, which could threaten the ruling party’s goal of achieving plurality.

Creating a favourable business climate

Both domestic and international reactions to Seselj’s acquittal affect Serbia’s future, especially in light of the ruling party’s goal of making the country a member of the EU by 2020. Although Serbia started its entry talks with the EU in January 2014, the country has numerous obligations that it needs to fulfill to become a member of the bloc, including court reformation, tackling organized crime, and improving its freedom of expression.

Improvements in these areas are not only crucial for attaining EU membership, but also for creating a favorable business environment to attract the foreign investment that the country needs. Freedom of expression is particularly important for Serbia, where the IT sector is the largest segment of its economy with approximately 6,000 professionals in 2,000 companies.

Seselj’s acquittal poses a risk for right-wing and nationalist movements to gain momentum and may threaten Serbia’s ability to foster the creation of an open society, threatening the nation’s ability to meet its obligations to become a EU nation. How Serbia chooses to champion these ideals while fighting against extremism and hate speech will impact how investors will view the business climate in the nation, as well as determine Serbia’s EU membership.

An even longer route towards EU membership

Furthermore, to gain EU membership Serbia must renounce its claims on Kosovo, whose independence is recognized by the majority of the 28-country bloc, including its only two former Yugoslav members, Croatia and Slovenia. Just last year Brussels praised Serbia for its efforts to “normalize” relations with Kosovo, but Seselj’s acquittal has unraveled these efforts. Kosovo has criticized the verdict and has blocked Seselj from entering, adding yet another stumbling block to Serbia’s EU goals.

Serbia’s neighbor Croatia (NATO and EU member) has the ability to determine Serbia’s future in the EU. For the pro-West Vucic government, seeking positive relations with Croatia is critical. However, a few days after Seselj’s acquittal, Croatia refused to support starting discussions on the EU negotiating chapter regarding judiciary and basic rights arguing that Serbia must not be allowed to prosecute war-era crimes committed in the other former Yugoslav republics. Since this chapter was to be the first area of discussion in Serbia-EU talks, Croatia’s retaliation was a setback for Vucic’s government.

Now, regardless of the outcomes of the Serbian parliamentary elections on April 24, it will be increasingly difficult for Vucic to fulfill his objective of attaining EU membership, as the country’s ability to become a member is not determined by domestic politics alone. External factors like Serbia’s relations with its neighbors play a significant role in this.

EU membership would certainly help Serbia economically and politically. It will help the country become more integrated into the continent. EU membership will also stimulate Serbia’s economy by helping the nation attract more foreign investment and create jobs, as around 25% of the population is unemployed. While Serbia needs improved relations with its neighbors and the EU, Serbian EU integration will also provide advantages for Brussels in combating the migrant crisis and countering Russian influence in the Balkans.

Although the ICTY verdict is unlikely to dramatically shape the outcomes of the Serbian elections, it nonetheless reignited the feelings of animosity among the Balkan nations. It will also impact how Serbia strives to shape itself within the region, Europe, and the rest of the world. Investors seek long-term stability as well as sustainable growth, but Seselj’s acquittal seems to have made it ever more difficult for Serbia to create such an environment.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Aiko Shimizu

Aiko Shimizu covers Japan’s renewable energy policy and clean tech investments at Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Her previous experiences include working at the United Nations, International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, Pacific Forum CSIS, and the East-West Center in Washington. She received her undergraduate degree in Political Science and International Studies from the University of Chicago and graduate degrees from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) and the University of Pennsylvania Law School.