President Tomislav Nikolić of Serbia, ex-Radical turned pro-EU "progressive". For real?
Ever since he candidated himself for the position of president of Serbia the second time in 2008 on behalf of the Serb Radical Party (Srpska Radikalna Stranka), which once again ended in defeat, he broke away from the party he was a loyal and prominent member of for almost two decades and established a new one, the "Serb Progressive Party" (Srpska Napredna Stranka). This new, more moderate right-wing party doesn't advocate changing the borders of Serbia to include vast regions to its west, and unlike the Radical Party is supportive of EU membership for Serbia, which has been a major party policy for the Progressive Party since its inception.
However, can we really believe that the once long-term, far-right, Serb nationalist has all of a sudden become a more moderate, right-of-centre politician? Let's look at his recent rhetoric at the UN and his comments in an interview this past month alone, which should give every observer at least cause for concern, if not confirm long-held suspicions.
In a debate about the work of international criminal courts organised earlier this month by the youthful Serbian diplomat Vuk Jeremić at the United Nations in New York, but boycotted by the ambassadors of the USA, Canada and Jordan, President Nikolić took to the speaker's stand to question the ICTY's impartiality and objectivity, claiming there was "a systematic atmosphere of a lynch-mobbing of everything that is Serbian", accusing it of double standards in its approach towards Serbs compared to others, and he even compared the Hague trials to the Inquisition! As President Nikolić was delivering his speech, Munira Subašić, the president of the association Mothers of Srebrenica (Udruženje Majke Srebrenice) was taken away from the hall by security, when she tried to raise a banner with "Republika Srpska - genocidal formation" written on it in capitals. Subašić later explained how she felt "powerless" when listening to Nikolić accuse the ICTY of bias against Serbs. (Notice how at odds Nikolić's view of international justice regarding accused Serbs is with what Subašić actually lived through and continues to put up with, thanks to the ideology he personally professed at the time she lost 22 relatives in July 1995.)
Let me turn your attention to the phrase "everything that is Serbian", used by the Serbian president in New York. This is something I often come across on the Internet in articles on Serbian websites, in messages on Serbian messageboards, and in YouTube and Facebook comments by those of a nationalistic bent, often using it in an apocalyptic context. Although I would expect such rhetoric from the likes of Nikolić, given his entire career in politics, I would never have expected a serious head of state at an international conference at the United Nations in New York of all places to use phrases popular in online commentary to discuss very serious issues regarding justice in the region.
In an interview on the BHT channel, also reported on Al Jazeera Balkans, asked about the Srebrenica massacre, President Nikolić said, "Genocide needs to be proven". Asked to comment on the fact that the war crime in Srebrenica has all the characteristics of genocide, Nikolić told, "Everything that was happening in the wars of the former Yugoslavia has the characteristics of genocide". Nevertheless, Nikolić did say the following, "Because of that, here I am, on my knees seeking mercy for Serbia for the crime executed in Srebrenica. I apologise for the crimes, which were, in the name of our state and our people, committed by any individual from our people". (This interview came a couple of days after the Serbian president met with two members of Bosnia & Herzegovina's tripartite presidency, Nebojša Radmanović i Bakir Izetbegović (son of Bosnia's wartime president, the late Alija Izetbegović). The latter of the two members insisted that, "Genocide in Srebrenica should not be denied, and that what happened in BiH 20 years ago should not be relativised or minimised, nor Serbia's role in it".)
Putting aside his repentant statement, the President is either unaware of the mountains of evidence and research already done with regards to the Srebrenica massacre and the nature of the atrocity in question, or is deliberately ignorant of it. But what to make of his claim that "everything" that happened during the wars had genocidal characteristics? These words could easily be interpreted as moral equivalence; suggesting that all sides in the wars were up to the same thing. And according to distinguished historians, who've thoroughly researched the wars in the former Yugoslavia, claiming that "all sides were at it" misrepresents how things actually happened on the ground.
From the start, I was never convinced by Nikolić's apparent transformation from Radical Chetnik Vojvoda into pro-EU integrationist! That's not to say that I don't think people can change from one extreme to another, or perhaps change from an extremist to a moderate; I do believe that some people can change their views on life quite radically and fundamentally, and I believe many have already done so and many more will do so. However, Nikolić is not just any member of the Serb Radical Party; he is a man who dedicated his life to the Chetnik cause and fought for its ideals. He joined the Ravna Gora Chetnik Movement (Ravnogorski Četnički Pokret) before any of the wars even started, and he was even bestowed the title of "vojvoda" in a ceremony, filmed in Bosnia and broadcast on Bosnian Serb TV in 1993. So how does such a man, who has for years been the deputy leader of his party (effectively its frontman since 2003, when its actual leader (who also happens to be his kum) got extradited to the Netherlands), has even candidated for the post of Serbian president twice (both times frighteningly close to victory (see here for the 2008 election results)), then suddenly decide to kiss goodbye to his anti-EU views and irredentist rhetoric, become the leader of a new party, and then win the presidential election? Third time lucky, huh? But seriously, doesn't that just strike you as odd?
But think about it, to put oneself on the electoral ticket twice, and coming short of winning both times, and then he founds a new party and wins! Come on, you don't have to be a politics graduate to work out how much this guy wanted to be president of his beloved country! Of course, one could interpret this as pure self-interest, and no doubt there must be at least some of it there. But let's not forget that this is someone who had devoted a large part of his life to Serb nationalism, the unification of so-called "Serb lands", etc. And even though he doesn't openly advocate "Greater Serbia" any more (which remains an unfulfilled dream for him), he still doesn't shy away from voicing clearly nationalistic sentiments, as expressed recently at the UN (read above). Perhaps he's just voices such sentiments purely for "political marketing", which certainly got him enough votes last year to get him into this current position of authority? But personally, I think Nikolić is still the same pro-Chetnik, Serb nationalist he always was inside, despite the much publicised change of heart. The only difference now is that he's put aside the territorial claims (you remember the "Karlobag-Karlovac-Virovitica" line?) and replaced them with pro-EU rhetoric.
I remember suspecting Nikolić of deciding to found a new party in emulation of what Čeda Jovanović achieved following his expulsion from the Democratic Party (the party of the late prime minister Zoran Đinđić) with the founding of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which aimed to go further than where the then Serbian President Boris Tadić was willing to go with the Democratic Party. Jovanović reached 5th place in the 2008 presidential elections on behalf of the LDP. So maybe Nikolić thought, "How about I leave my party and found a new one, just like Čeda did?" Who knows, maybe that's exactly what happened?!
However, for me as a Serb from Croatia, that this man became president of Serbia could never be good news. He has never denied being a Serbian volunteer in the Croatian war. However, worst of all, he is accused of personal involvement in the murder of elderly Croats in the village of Antin near Vinkovci (see here). So what would happen now if the current Serbian President were to decide to step onto Croatian soil; what would happen to him personally, and what kind of a reaction would such a visit provoke? Therefore, without any effort on his part, Nikolić's presidency has and will undermine relations between the two countries, which have otherwise been building closer ties over the past ten years, especially during Tadić's term in office, despite the brutal legacy of the war and the tensions that emanate from that era.
So these are the primary reasons why I, as a lay observer of Ex-Yu politics, take whatever Serbian President Tomislav Nikolić says with reserve: firstly, although "Greater Serbia" is no longer on the menu, by expressing popular nationalistic opinions in his capacity as head of state, as he did in New York, he gives credence to that worldview and to that interpretation of history, regardless of its accuracy or lack thereof; secondly, I suspect the whole transformation into a "Progressive" is a clever political stunt, designed to finally bring him to that coveted position of authority he now occupies; and thirdly, I fear his presidency will not only undermine relations with Croatia, as it already has done so far, but also discourage justice and reconciliatory efforts from moving quicker.