Vojislav Šešelj leaves the scene as he entered it, a monument to other people’s failures. Having constructed his first political career in Bosnia-Hercegovina on the strength of (largely accurate) claims of corruption in the local Communist party, he went on to build a second one in Serbia with an opposition party constructed by counterintelligence services designed to preemptively occupy political space that could eventually be taken up by a genuine opposition party. Building on a career that drew on the failure of two consecutive parties, he made a well publicised third career in The Hague drawing on the failures of legal and medical institutions.
A gadfly in his Sarajevo days, he was pumped up into a proper horsefly in Serbia. Documentation from the Belgrade committee of Milošević’s Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) offers some interesting details of his political rise: first engaged to aid in deposing the government of the province of Vojvodina in 1988, SPS was satisfied that he did not “make great demands” and decided to promote him as a front candidate for an available parliamentary seat in Rakovica in 1991.
From there Šešelj’s Serbian Radical Party grew to become the “reserve force” of SPS, propping it up when its electoral support fell short, openly advocating the goals that the nominal government was compelled to keep silent, and maintaining the illusion that more than one party – not just the officially ruling one, but also one that the ruling party publicized and financed – had access to state institutions. And he enjoyed himself in the way that sociopaths do, spending years threatening opponents, waving pistols around, increasing his waist size and making unfunny jokes about bananas.
It wasn’t only political dirty deeds that Šešelj did dirt cheap, though. Paramilitary organizations nominally under the command of his party operated during the conflicts in Croatia (more than anywhere else in Vukovar) and Bosnia-Hercegovina (where, for example, his forces participated in a massacre of civilians in Zvornik), engaging in the kind of intimidation and violence that was beneath the dignity of the military. Even while the conflict was ongoing, Šešelj was happy to acknowledge openly that these forces were armed, trained and financed through the military, the State Security (DB) service of Serbia, and the Serbian interior ministry. He engaged his forces within the borders of Serbia as well, particularly during a violent campaign over the course of 1992 to expel the ethnic Croat population of Vojvodina – at the peak of which most of the Croat population of the village of Hrtkovci was compelled to leave their homes.
Political power and privilege kept Šešelj mostly protected from prosecution while Milošević was in power, and for some time after he was no longer in power. His motivations for delivering himself to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) are a matter of discussion. On the one hand, he had been saying for years that he wanted very much to be charged and tried at ICTY, and that he “would never miss such a show.” In that context it is not surprising that just a month after an indictment against him was issued in January 2003, he would happily respond. On the other hand, there were many things he could be prosecuted for in Serbia from which ICTY protected him very effectively – among them his unclarified role in the conspiracy to murder prime minister Zoran Djindjić, which was carried out a short three weeks after his departure for the Netherlands.
Convicting Šešelj at ICTY was never likely to be a simple affair. One of the problems was that despite his encompassing public image, he had never done much independently – his activity was as a frontman, variously, for Milošević, for DB, for some organised crime groups. And while he was best known for making crass and outrageous public statements advocating violence and discrimination, it is not clear that being a vile and distasteful human being is a crime under international law. The strength of the case against him always depended on showing the existence and coordination of the joint criminal enterprise (JCE) to commit crimes for political purposes, and showing that his contribution to the JCE in those instances where he was not directly involved consisted in encouraging other people, who were more capable, to commit crimes.
That is to say that the likelihood of convicting Šešelj depended on ICTY doing some things that it did not do: convicting the head of the regime, Milošević; convicting the general who directed Milošević’s flows of arms, people and money, Perišić; and convicting the people who formed, trained and supplied the paramilitaries, Stanišić and Simatović. With no convictions in those cases, attributing the JCE to Šešelj would be like attributing the White Album to Ringo.
ICTY added to the inherent problems of the case by creating a few of their own, which were compounded by a set of problems created by the defendant. Briefly there were three fundamental problems with the management of Šešelj’s trial at ICTY: 1) they couldn’t start it, 2) they couldn’t conduct it, and 3) they couldn’t end it. I could go into detail on all of these levels, but people who have followed the case already know the details and they are uninteresting to everybody else.
But we are where we are: with a trial that began four years after the entry of the defendant into custody, dragged on for five more years (despite the defendant declining to present a defence), and that remains undecided two and one half years after the last word was spoken in oral arguments. ICTY already tried once to relieve itself of the defendant they do not know how to try, and failed. This time (new word, everyone, proprio motu) they figured they could do it if the judges gave the order without consulting the parties, and have ordered the release of the gravely ill defendant.
Will there be a verdict? One of the unusual characteristics of this judicial panel is that it contains a judge who was not present to hear the evidence, since the previous judge was removed from the case in a high-profile pissing contest. The new judge says (probably truthfully) that he needs time to catch up, and that the earliest a verdict can be expected is mid-2015. Liver metastases are not in the habit of waiting that long.
The defendant, for his part, says that he is not interested in medical treatment but revenge.
With this move, ICTY cements its reputation as a judicial establishment that convicts low- and middle-ranking offenders, acquits politicians and commanders, and engages in high-risk experiments that produce no result.