Serb Radical leader stirs tensions with plans to court arrest in Zagreb

Serb Radical leader stirs tensions with plans to court arrest in Zagreb
By Ivana Jovanovic in Belgrade August 25, 2016

The leader of the far-right Serbian Radical Party (SRS), Vojislav Seselj, has announced plans for a trip to Zagreb within the next 10 days, despite being banned from entering Croatia.

Seselj’s announcement comes shortly before the Croatian general election, due to take place on September 11. Tensions between Serbia and Croatia are already high following  a series of recent diplomatic incidents between the two countries, and Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic recently cancelled his planned visit to Dubrovnik for the Croatian Forum.

Seselj tweeted his intentions to travel to Croatia on August 23. The following day he confirmed to regional broadcaster N1 that as he now has a diplomatic passport, he will drive to Zagreb within the next ten days. His motive appears to be mainly self-promotion, as he aims to raise the profile of the SRS, which returned to the Serbian parliament after the April general election.

Seselj’s announcement has caused stormy reactions in Croatia whose authorities have threatened to arrest the far-right politician if he tries to enter the country. In April, the Croatian ministry of interior affairs adopted a decision to prohibit Seselj’s entry to Croatia for the next 20 years.

The decision was a reaction to the March 31 decision of the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague to acquit Seselj of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Seselj was accused of war crimes against Croats and Muslims in Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and the Serbian province of Vojvodina in 1991-1993 during the Yugoslavian civil war.

“Vojislav Seselj is persona non grata in Croatia. He’s not welcome here ... if he comes, he will be arrested,” outgoing Prime Minister Tihomir Oreskovic told Croatian news portal on August 23.

Seselj responded by saying that it was not surprising Oreskovic had held his position for just a few months. Oreskovic lost a vote of confidence in June.

Despite the travel ban, Seselj claims that now he has a diplomatic passport it will not be possible to prevent him from entering Croatia without creating a diplomatic incident. He forecast that if the Croatian authorities try to arrest him, Serbia would have to apply counter-measures like expelling the Croatian ambassador or charge d'affaires. This would put Vucic's government into the awkward position of having to defend the outspoken demagogue.

Seselj said he was issued a diplomatic passport because of his status as the leader of the largest opposition group in the Serbian parliament. While this has not yet been confirmed by the Serbian foreign ministry, SRS member Aleksandra Belacic posted a picture of the passport on her Twitter feed.

Elaborating on his travel plans, Seselj said he would cross the border near the town of Sid then drive to the Croatian capital. “I will organise a press conference in Zagreb, walk through the city center and sit for a while in Gradska Kafana,” Seselj told N1, naming Zagreb’s oldest bistro.

However, he also hinted at plans for further provocations in Croatia, telling Tanjug that the reason for his trip to Zagreb was "to get involved a bit" in the election campaign underway in the country.

Montenegrin media reported earlier this month that Seselj was also planning to visit Montenegro ahead of the October parliamentary elections to support the nationalist Serb Radical Party, which is not currently represented in the parliament. He has not visited Podgorica since 1996, when Montenegro also issued a 20 year travel ban, which is now due to expire.

Seselj has even weighed in on the US presidential elections, urging Serbs in the US to vote for Republican candidate Donald Trump. He and other SRS members rallied outside the Serbian presidency wearing Trump t-shirts during US Vice President Joe Biden’s visit on August 16.

Seselj’s announcement of his visit to Croatia’s capital coincided with Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic’s cancelation of his visit to Dubrovnik for the Croatian Forum. Vucic’s decision was made as tensions between the two countries have escalated during the last couple months as the general elections in Croatia approach.

Typically politicians from both sides step up their nationalist rhetoric as elections approach, and a calming of tensions is expected after the vote. However, more conflict is anticipated next year, when Serbia is due to hold presidential elections.

The ongoing tensions have been fuelled by two recent decisions by Croatian courts - the annullment of the verdict against Catholic cardinal Aloysius Stepinac, a backer of Croatia’s Second World War Ustashe regime, and the scrapping of the verdict against Branimir Glavas, a former general and lawmaker who was convicted of war crimes against Serbs.

This was followed by series of protest notes and mutual accusation which exploded on August 4 and 5 when the both countries commemorated Operation Storm but in very different ways. For Serbs it is a symbol of suffering after more than 200,000 Serbs were expelled from their homes in Croatia, and thousands were killed. Croats consider it a victory, which led to independence and freedom.

Croatia has also been threatening to be a serious obstacle on Serbia’s EU path. For several months, Croatia blocked the opening of negotiation chapters 23 and 24 in Serbia’s EU accession process, though it eventually dropped its veto.