Vojislav Šešelj

An extremist Serbian politician, moonlighting as a paramilitary commander during the 1990s wars in former Yugoslavia. Alternately an ally and critic of Slobodan Milošević, the uncompromising Šešelj represented the far-right strand of Serbian politics after Milošević's fall, and was publicly indicted by the War Crimes Tribunal at the Hague on February 15, 2003.

Šešelj was born in Sarajevo in 1954, and like a number of ex-Yugoslavia's nationalists had once had a high-flying academic career. Biljana Plavšić, one day to be the vice-president of the Bosnian Serb republic, was a former biology instructor, and the future Croatian president Franjo Tudjman a controversial revisionist historian. Šešelj topped his class at law school and became Yugoslavia's youngest holder of a doctorate.


The intense Serbian nationalism of the 1980s first developed among academics, with the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences publishing a now infamous memorandum in 1986. Šešelj, perhaps, was ahead of the game, and received a two-year prison sentence in 1984 for an unpublished article which called for the federal Yugoslavia to be replaced with something approaching Greater Serbia. After his release, Šešelj continued to agitate for the nationalist cause in Belgrade, and found his audience ever more willing.

While Miloševic - who had jumped on the bandwagon as late as 1987 - delivered a historic address before an audience of hundreds of thousands on the site of the symbolic Battle of Kosovo in 1989, commemorating the six hundredth anniversary of the 'glorious' defeat, Šešelj was in the United States making contact with ultranationalist Serb émigrés led by Momčilo Đujić. Đujić's group called themselves Chetniks after Serbian bandits who had fought Ottoman tax-collectors and a World War II resistance movement which had come to be associated with Serb nationalism.

Šešelj had the ceremonial title of Vojvoda, or Duke, conferred upon him by Dujić, and travelled around North America and Western Europe raising funds from like-minded Serbs before returning to Yugoslavia in 1990 and founding a succession of Serb nationalist parties. All were banned by the Yugoslavian government, although his Serbian Chetnik Movement received nearly 100,000 votes in that December's elections. His Serbian Radical Party, reviving a name which had dominated the politics of the kingdom of Serbia, was founded in February 1991.

During 1990, Šešelj had also maintained contact with rebel Serbs in the Croatian town of Knin, who were making very clear that they were determined to resist the ever-increasing likelihood of Croatia's secession from the federation. That December, they declared that their Krajina region was an autonomous Serb district, independent from Croatia, and Krajina paramilitaries took part in a number of clashes with the Croatian police during the spring and early summer of 1991.

Šešelj kept up a barrage of nationalist speeches inciting the Krajina Serbs, and appeared in person at the March 1991 stand-off between police and paramilitaries in Plitvice National Park. One band of paramilitaries named themselves the Šešeljovci, Šešelj's men, in his honour. In May they helped local Serbs in the village of Borovo Selo to ambush a detachment of Croatian police, killing 12 and injuring 20 more in an early, bitter round of the war as yet undeclared.

White Eagles

Croatia finally left Yugoslavia on June 25, 1991, alongside Slovenia, and Šešelj continually appealed to Croatia's Serbs to help the Yugoslavian army, the JNA, keep Croatia in the federation by force. He visited Serb soldiers that autumn to boost their morale before the attack on Dubrovnik, and also recruited a number of volunteers himself, into a unit known as the White Eagles.

During the JNA's siege of Vukovar, in Eastern Slavonia where the Serbs had organised themselves in the same way as the Krajina, Šešelj turned up in the city and announced that 'Not one Ustasha will leave this town alive.' The Ustashe were the Croatian fascists during World War II who had ruled the country as a Nazi puppet state; for Serb nationalists to refer to all Croats in this way was commonplace. Vukovar fell on November 18, 1991, at which around 300 non-Serb patients in Vukovar's hospital were kidnapped, tortured and killed by soldiers and paramilitaries.

From Vukovar, Šešelj turned his attention to Bosnia-Herzegovina, which was also now preparing to declare its independence. Here, too, Serb nationalists had drawn up plans to resist, and Šešelj lent his voice to the campaign, arriving in Zvornik in March 1992 to exhort his 'Chetnik brothers' to drive the 'pagans' out of Bosnia. The next month, Serb forces including volunteers recruited by Šešelj and his fellow warlord Arkan attacked the town, instigating ethnic cleansing of non-Serbs in which Šešelj is, according to The Hague, complicit.

Not even Serbian territory was immune: in May 1992, Šešelj rolled into the ethnically mixed Vojvodina region and called for Croat residents to be expelled. The coalition of soldiers and paramilitaries, White Eagles included, quickly arrived in the Vojvodina, disarmed non-Serb villagers and forcibly deported the majority of the Croat and Bosniak population.

Meanwhile, Šešelj co-operated with Milošević to sideline moderate Serbian politicians until 1993, when Milošević began to flirt with the Vance-Owen plan for peace and cut back his support for the Bosnian Serbs. Attempting to establish himself as the West's 'man we can do business with', he no longer found the radical nationalist's support particularly welcome, and turned on his former comrade during a parliamentary session, describing him as 'the personification of violence'. Šešelj responded with an irate speech implicating the strongman and his associates in well-publicised atrocities.

Brothers in Arms

Šešelj continued to call for Greater Serbia during his time in the political wilderness, and was thrown out of Bosnia-Herzegovina during the run-up to the 1998 elections because he was so implacably opposed to the Dayton Accords which had created the Bosnian state in 1995. By then, however, he had entered government at Milošević's side once more, and his Radicals were coalition partners with the parties of Milošević and the president's wife Mira Marković.

In March 1998, Milošević made him a deputy premier at an acute moment in the diplomatic crisis concerning the treatment of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. Helping to rally extreme nationalist sentiment round Milošević at home, Šešelj also conveniently represented to foreign diplomats what the likely alternative to Milošević's cronies would be. He resigned from his governmental position in June 1999 when NATO troops set foot on Kosovo's hallowed soil.

Still an arch-pragmatist - few Serbian politicians are not - Šešelj withdrew his support from Milošević at the last minute when Serbian opinion turned against him in October 2000. He had personally signed an order that very May for police to storm the independent television station Studio B; now he demanded that Studio B, which would become one of the major voices of the protest, was brought back under the control of Belgrade's mayor.

In the supposed new era of Milošević's successor Vojislav Koštunica, Šešelj maintained his brand of populism, appealing to voters who have seen no economic benefit from the change of government. In December 2002, he came second to Koštunica in Serbia's second attempt that year at a presidential election, but the result was ruled invalid once again as the minimum turnout of 50% had not been reached.

Šešelj was publicly indicted by the Hague Tribunal in February 2003, and surprisingly announced that he would fly to The Hague within a matter of days, adding that he had had prior knowledge of the indictment. He was hardly expected to display the repentance of Biljana Plavšić, who followed up a similar sensation by pleading guilty to crimes against humanity in December 2002.

Indeed, he followed Milošević's tactic of refusing to enter a plea, and underlined his contempt for the court by refusing to follow protocol and stand up for the judges' entrances. Before the trial proper had begun, he had already declared his intention to use the dock as a platform for his rejection of the court's legitimacy.

In April 2003, the Serbian government accused Šešelj of complicity in the murder of the Serbian prime minister Zoran Đinđić the previous month. He was not charged with direct involvement, which was allegedly perpetrated by members of the Zemun gang, but had predicted 'a turbulent spring in Serbia' before leaving for The Hague and - according to the deputy PM - had ordered Đinđić to be eliminated over lunch in Belgrade.

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