With his popularity boosted by his war crimes acquittal, Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj is hoping to stage a political comeback among Bosnia’s Serbs as well as in his home country.
By Danijel Kovacevic
Vojislav Seselj is hoping to pick up his political career where he left off when he went to The Hague to stand trial at the UN war crimes tribunal in 2003.
Seselj’s Serbian Radical Party, which has been active in Serbia and Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska throughout the past two decades, has been weakened by his prolonged absence.
Its political space in both countries has meanwhile been occupied by mainstream parties which have moved to the right and assumed positions based on Serb nationalist and patriotic sentiments.
Amid growing conservatism and nationalism as well as increased public frustrations with mainstream parties across the region, Seselj sees ample space for a political revival and is making big plans for his comeback, as long as the Hague Tribunal confirms his acquittal in its appeals ruling, sources close to the Radical Party chief told BIRN on condition of anonymity.
According to these sources, Serbia remains Seselj’s main focus, but he is also keen to engage more actively in Republika Srpska and use his popularity there to gradually rebuild his base on both sides of the Drina river.
But some analysts believe that his comeback bid is likely to fail.
“His old rhetoric still can find an audience today, but not as much as in the 1990s,” Tanja Topic, a Banja Luka-based political analyst at the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, told BIRN.
While his party’s standing has improved after it got back into the Serbian parliament at last month’s elections, Seselj still has neither the resources nor the infrastructure to make a significant step forward in Republika Srpska, argued Topic.
“He is the kind of man who gets a lot of attention from the media so people tend to think that his influence is bigger than it really is. His party infrastructure in RS is small and the political territory that he claimed is now occupied by other political parties with more or less the same political matrix but formulated differently,” she said.
Seselj also faces other problems. The main one is his inability to travel outside Serbia until the appeal at the Hague Tribunal is over. Another is a legal problem with a competing trio of Serbian Radical Parties which currently operate in Bosnia.
Bosnia’s rival Radical Parties
In the first few years after the end of the Bosnian war, the local branch of the Serbian Radical Party, established and led by Nikola Poplasen, was among the two or three strongest parties in Republika Srpska.
In 1998, Poplasen even won the presidency of Republika Srpska as the joint candidate of the Radical Party and the Serb Democratic Party, SDS. But in 1999, Poplasen was removed from office by the country’s international overseer, High Representative Carlos Werstendorp, for refusing to nominate Milorad Dodik as the entity’s prime minister designate.
The Bosnian branch of the party weakened further after Seselj voluntary left for The Hague in 2003.
Eventually it split and three rival Radical Parties were established in subsequent years, but their influence and public support remained frail, while their ideologies moved away from Seselj’s original hardline positions.
Today, only one of the three, the Serbian Radical Party of Republika Srpska, SRS-RS, has any MPs in the Republika Srpska National Assembly. Its president Milanko Mihajlica and vice-president Sinisa Ilic both have seats.
As a member of the Serb opposition bloc, the Alliance for Change, the SRS-RS is also a part of the ruling coalition at the state level, alongside Bosniak and Croat parties.
This is one of the reasons why Seselj does not recognise the SRS-RS and denies any connection with it, although it is the sole legal successor to his own party.
Another of the splinter parties is the Serbian Radical Party – Vojislav Seselj, the SRS-VS. The party is led by the longtime president of Seselj’s party in Republika Srpska, Mirko Blagojevic.
Seselj does not support the Serbian Radical Party – Vojislav Seselj either.
He became furious when Blagojevic recently tried to get the Bosnian Radicals to unite and run together with Nikola Poplasen in the upcoming local elections. He forbade Blagojevic from using his name, but Blagojevic, who is a lawyer, managed to secure a court decision allowing him to use it.
Seselj said he will raise the issue with the local courts and Bosnia’s Central Election Commission, but if he fails and Blagojevic does not change his mind, the country’s political scene will witness yet another paradox – a party running in the local elections under Seselj’s name which does not have his support.
The third Radical Party, and the only that is currently recognised by Seselj, is the Serbian Radical Party, SRS, led by Dragan Djurdjevic, the speaker of the city council in Bijeljina.
Djurdjevic played a key role in the recent political coup in Bijeljina, when he switched sides, joined the caucus led by the ruling Alliance of Independent Social Democrats, SNSD, and helped them take the majority on the council away from the SDS for the first time since 1991.
However, Djurdjevic’s SRS has very poor infrastructure in Republika Srpska, particularly in the administrative centre of Banja Luka, where it formally exists but is politically invisible.
The SRS is strongest in Bijeljina and East New Sarajevo, but that was not enough for it to make any important gains in the 2012 local elections or cross the three per cent threshold to win parliamentary seats in the 2014 general elections.
The Seselj-Dodik courtship
Until he rebuilds his party infrastructure and finds new activists and members in Serbia and Republika Srpska, Seselj will be forced to make careful steps on the two separate but interlinked political scenes, which are dominated by Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic and Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik.
According to experts, Seselj is likely to try to stay close to the ruling elites, until his party is in a better state to compete by itself.
In Serbia, Seselj has been applying a two-pronged approach – trying to undermine and possibly even replace Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic, a former Radical Party official who he believes betrayed him, without agitating Vucic too much.
In Republika Srpska, Seselj seems to be moving closer to Dodik, who is still perceived as the strongest defender of Serb nationalist interests and remains a thorn in the side of the international community.
“We will support Dodik as long as he defends RS while relying on Russia in the defence of Serbian national interests. We also have critical remarks about his authority and procedures,” Seselj told local media in March.
This relationship came into the spotlight few weeks ago, after Dodik came to Bijeljina to celebrate newly established majority in that city’s council.
When Dodik joined local officials in a Bijeljina restaurant, he was greeted in front of the TV cameras not by one of his own Alliance of Independent Social Democrats, SNSD party, but by Dragan Djurdjevic of the SRS.
The incident was generally perceived as a proof of the strengthening of bonds between the SNSD and the SRS, as well as between Dodik and Seselj, with Djurdjevic acting as his proxy.
As well as in Bijeljina, a coalition between the SNSD and the SRS was also established in East New Sarajevo, a Serb-controlled municipality, where at the beginning of May the two parties signed agreement to jointly run in the local elections.
According to sources close to Seselj, the formalisation of this cooperation between the SNSD and the SRS would probably not have happened without prior consultations between Dodik and Vucic.
“It would be wrong to assume that cooperation between the SNSD and the SRS comes without approval by Serbian Prime Minister Vucic,” Vlade Simovic, a political analyst from Banja Luka, told BIRN.
“Dodik is trying to maintain good relationship with Vucic, and considering the past relationship between Vucic and Seselj, it is hard to imagine that the leader of the SNSD would make a deal with Seselj’s political branch in RS without asking Vucic for his opinion,” Simovic said.
Analyst Tanja Topic suggested meanwhile that Seselj would set himself limited political goals but seek to use his nationalist rhetoric as a disruptive influence.
“His main goal today in RS is to raise the political temperature and tensions between Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats. He will focus on the local election and on the local authorities, rather than on the entity or the state level, because he can’t expect to win a seat in either the RS or Bosnian parliament any time soon,” she predicted.