Seselj: Serb firebrand accused of inciting 1990s horrors


Belgrade (AFP)

Accused of poisoning the minds of his forces who committed "unspeakable" atrocities, hardline Serb nationalist Vojislav Seselj today seems more concerned with his attempted political comeback than a potential war crimes conviction.

The stocky 61-year-old will not be present at The Hague-based UN court for a judgement Thursday on his allegedly leading role in the horrors of the 1990s Balkan wars, having been allowed back to Serbia in 2014 for cancer treatment.

But ill health has not prevented the former deputy prime minister from appearing on reality television, publicly burning EU and NATO flags and firing up far-right rallies ahead of a general election in April, in which he plans to stand.

The Serbian Radical Party leader, who has likened himself on Twitter to divisive US presidential hopeful Donald Trump, has barely toned down the ultranationalist rhetoric for which he became notorious during the 1990s conflicts.

"The point of the Serbian Radical Party's existence is the idea of a Greater Serbia. If that idea disappeared, what would we do on the political scene?" he said on returning to Belgrade after nearly 12 years in detention at The Hague.

Prosecutors say Seselj is criminally responsible for the murder, torture and deportation of non-Serbs during the 1990s wars in his quest to unite "all Serbian lands" in a "Greater Serbia" as Yugoslavia fell apart.

Seselj "raised his own army of volunteers... indoctrinated them with his poisonous ideas" and sent them to the front lines where they committed "unspeakable crimes", prosecutor Christine Dahl told the court in 2007.

"In the end Seselj did not achieve a Greater Serbia, he managed to achieve a lesser Serbia and gave the world the term ethnic cleansing," she said.

Seselj faces a verdict on nine charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity from judges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), to which he voluntarily surrendered in February 2003.

- 'Counter-revolutionary' -

Born in Sarajevo in Bosnia in 1954, Seselj studied law and obtained a doctorate, going on to lecture in political science at Sarajevo University in the early 1980s.

The nationalist ideas he developed were not appreciated by the communist regime, and he was convicted of "counter-revolutionary activities" and spent two years in jail.

He then moved to Belgrade where, after communism collapsed, he formed the Serbian Radical Party in 1991, quickly becoming an MP and known for his shocking antics in parliament -- from swearing to drawing pistols.

His paramilitary volunteers, known as "Seselj's men", emerged during the 1991-95 wars in Croatia and Bosnia, and among his incendiary comments he once boasted that Serbs would "slaughter Croats with rusty spoons".

From 1998 to 2000 he was Serbia's deputy prime minister under the autocratic regime of Slobodan Milosevic, who died during his own war crimes trial at The Hague in 2006.

After giving himself up, Seselj forced the cancellation of his first trial in 2006 by going on a hunger strike to insist on his right to defend himself.

A second trial opened in 2007 in which he cast himself as a martyr, thundering his regret that the tribunal did not allow for the death sentence.

"So that proudly, with dignity, upright like my friend Saddam Hussein I could put the final seal on my ideology," he said, also casting himself as a victim of an anti-Serb conspiracy.

Among his angry outbursts, he once said he smelled the odour of gas when a German judge arrived in the courtroom, and also compared the proceedings to a "satanic ritual".

- Breaking with allies -

His party was Serbia's largest until 2008, when Seselj's close allies Tomislav Nikolic and Aleksandar Vucic broke ranks and formed the ruling pro-European Serbian Progressive Party.

Vucic is now Prime Minister and Nikolic is President, while Seselj's anti-Western and pro-Russian rhetoric holds less sway, despite his attention-grabbing tactics.

The Radicals are expected to scrape the threshold in April's elections with around six percent of votes, and Seselj will have no legal obstacle to standing unless and until an appeals court upholds any conviction.

Seselj has said he will neither follow Thursday's ruling nor return to The Hague voluntarily.

"I don't regret a single day in the fight against the anti-Serbian court," he recently told Russia Today.