Two rulings of an international tribunal might fuel right-wing nationalism as Serbians vote in parliamentary elections.
As Serbia heads into the final weeks of parliamentary elections scheduled for April 24, two rulings by a UN court in the Hague which some feared might fuel a revival of right-wing nationalism and anti-Europe fervor appear instead to be driving voters towards the centrist party of incumbent Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić.
On March 24, an International Criminal Tribunal sentenced Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić to a 40-year prison term for genocide in Srebrenica, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Then, a week later, the judges took the view that charges against Serbian far-right nationalist leader Vojislav Šešelj should be dismissed.
The immediate reaction in Belgrade was that the timing of these decisions could not have been less helpful to supporters of European engagement and Balkan reconciliation. Though very different, and grounded in seemingly contradictory logic, each judgment in its own way looked likely to stir up old passions, inflaming right-wing nativist sentiment.
Serbia’s tabloid media were immediately full of speculation about the rise of the right. The chief beneficiary seemed likely to be Šešelj’s Radical Party, which opposes EU accession and advocates a “Greater Serbia”—in effect a partial restoration of Yugoslavia’s old boundaries under Serbian rule.
Even before the UN tribunal’s rulings brought the former Yugoslavia’s tragedies of 1991-1999 back to the front pages, there had been murmurings that some left-wing and normally pro-EU voters might support rightist parties. The former deputy prime minister and left-leaning political theorist Žarko Korać, a Vučić critic, told an interviewer [in Serbian] several weeks ago that “democratically oriented citizens are beginning to make pacts with those anti-European oriented individuals or groups, with the chauvinists, who would, if they are in power, be much worse than Vučić.”
However, it now appears the pro-EU left has been alerted to the risk and the complicated multi-party calculus of Serbian politics may be in the process of changing again. The ruling Progressive Party may well become a safe haven for voters fearful of an ultra right-wing revival.
Vesna Rakic Vodinelić, an influential legal expert who four years ago advocated depositing blank voter slips into ballot boxes rather than vote for any candidate, says she now foresees feeling compelled to support the Progressives. In an interview with Radio Free Europe’s Serbian service she said the situation was comparable to that of recent regional elections in France, where the Socialists called on their supporters to back Nicolas Sarkozy’s party to block the election of Front National candidates.
Asked if she felt the danger was so great that pro-European parties which oppose Vučić might one day ask their supporters to support the Progressives, she replied: “Yes, unfortunately, including me.”
For many Serbian liberals, that may well prove to be the reasonable choice on April 24.
Rakic Vodinelić believes a revival of xenophobia and right-wing populism in Serbia will be much in line with trends visible across Europe. By opposing EU membership, Šešelj’s Radicals are almost perfectly in tune with France’s Front National, Hungary’s Jobbik, Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland, Britain’s UKIP and others. As elsewhere, Serbia’s version is partly fueled by a still-struggling economy and high unemployment, conditions which the Vučić government is only now beginning to tackle effectively.
In Belgrade, Šešelj is being heralded as a hero by his supporters, having been acquitted of nine war crime charges arising from incidents in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia during the 1990s. The Hague tribunal ruled that his ultra-nationalist views were political, not criminal, and that there was insufficient evidence to convict him for crimes by paramilitary volunteers he had recruited.
Jubilant Radical Party supporters now expect their electoral fortunes to improve and commentators tend to agree. At the very least it is expected that the party’s support will eclipse the five per cent needed, according to electoral rules, for parliamentary representation, giving it a national platform. It failed to win any seats in the last election and had widely been viewed as a spent force until the past week.
Since the Progressives’ election in 2012, the Vučić-led government has made EU accession a flagship policy. Vučić called the current early election because he said he needed four more years to put in place the reforms needed to achieve that.
Vučić has been highly critical of the ICT process without defending either Karadžić or Šešelj. He has said he views the Tribunal as a “political court and not as a judicial institution.” He said last week reconciliation had originally been one of the main goals of the process but “there is no doubt that the Hague tribunal has not fulfilled this goal.”
The impact on the rest of the electorate is an open question. The center-left Democratic Party is in some disarray following a series of corruption scandals dating from its time in office. Until last week, with polls showing support for the Progressive Party at or close to 50%, it seemed a safe bet that the Vučić government would be returned with a majority and a mandate to proceed with its economic reform package and EU negotiations. That may still be a safe bet, but it appears possible that instead of the opposition being solidly left-leaning, there may also be opposition from the right.