SAT, 26 JUL 1997 18:22:53 GMT
The latest moves of Vojislav Seselj aimed at stirring up fear and hatred are the result of deep changes the Socialist Party of Serbia is undergoing after the winter protests. Having felt that the post-Dayton "peace-making" orientation was undermining the very foundations of his power, Milosevic has "freshened up" his party with the old cadre, turning back to the original chauvinist principles which had been his starting-point. Seselj was among the first to grasp the significance of this "return to the past".
AIM Belgrade, 22 July, 1997
After ten years of Slobodan Milosevic's rule it was hard to believe that it was still possible to shock the Serbian public. Nevertheless, that is what Vojislav Seselj, mayor of Zemun, leader of the Serb Radical Party and candidate at the forthcoming presidential elections in Serbia, has managed to do. After the event that occurred on Wednesday 16 July in the premises of Belgrade BK Television, the political life in Serbia will never be the same.
On that day, BK Television had a show called "Tete-a-Tete" on its program, one of the many from the category of tv duels, and the misfortune to debate with Seselj befell Belgrade lawyer Nikola Barovic. The immediate cause of this duel was the case of Zemun family Barbalic, who having returned from vacation, learnt that they had been deprived of their apartment by a decision of the Zemun mayor, and that one of Seselj's associates had already moved into it. The explanation of municipal authorities was that family Barbalic, being Zemun Croats, were not entitled to possess real estate in FR Yugoslavia, as well as the obvious lie that the apartment was not used for more than five years.
Nikola Barovic who had even before the war acquired the reputation of an uncompromising fighter for human rights, came to the studio armed with a valid court decision which returned the apartment to the Barbalics; Seselj came with his bodyguard and a heap of papers, allegedly found in the home of family Barbalic, which implied that for generations the Barbalics had been Ustashe, that Ante Pavelic in person had colonized them in Zemun, and similar things. Seselj's promise that he would see to it that the youngest Barbalic (four years old) was expelled from kindergarten left an especially revolting impression. As the program proceeded, Seselj increasingly referred to "ad hominem" arguments: after he had proclaimed Barovic himself an Ustashe, he insulted Barovic's late father. At one moment, Barovic reached out for a glass of water from the table and spilt the water on Seselj. Seselj stopped talking, stiffened, and then said: "You cannot provoke me in the studio, but you will pay dearly for this". After that, the program was interrupted.
It was necessary to wait but for a few minutes for Seselj's threats to be fulfilled. While Barovic was drinking coffee in the office of the host of the program, Seselj appeared at the door accompanied by his bodyguard who beat up Barovic with a series of karate blows in the head. The last words Barovic had heard before losing consciousness were the following: "That should do it, now we can go", with which Seselj called his gorilla back. Later that evening, physicians established that the lawyer's nose was broken, that his cheek-bone was broken in two spots, and that he had to undergo a surgery because of internal haemorrhage.
The very next day, Seselj presented his version of the event, without mentioning his bodyguard. "Barovic darted to hit me, and I pushed him back. A banana peel happened to be on the floor, he slid on it and flew down the stairs, and then this was repeated five or six times", declared the leader of the Radicals to bewildered journalists with a smile. Seselj's deputy Tomislav Nikolic went a step further. "Crazy Barovic was asking for trouble and he got what he deserved. He was not beaten up by Seselj, but by people who had gathered in front of the studio reacting to Barovic's Ustashe propaganda", explained Nikolic.
More concern than the event itself was caused by the reaction of the ruling parties, or rather, their failure to react. State television did not report about it, nor did the pro-regime press, although Barovic's swollen face appeared on the front pages of all independent journals. At the Serbian assembly session the next day, it turned out that there was not a single prominent representative of the Socialist Party of Serbia who believed that this event deserved their attention. "That is pure nonsense. We are dealing with serious things here", Dragan Tomic, the chairman of the assembly and the acting president of Serbia until the new head of the state is elected, said to the journalists. In the following few days, majority of officials zealously pretended that they knew nothing about it. BK Television itself (owned by Bogoljub Karic) in the premises of which Nikola Barovic had been beaten up, joined them in this attitude with its awkward statement in which they stated that "both guests had broken the rules" and that "guards could not have prevented the incident in any way". Such reaction is being linked to the persistent attempts of Bogoljub Karic to be restored to favour of Slobodan Milosevic after his short excursion to the opposition.
The judiciary acted similarly: the public prosecutor did not see fit to react in the line of duty, and decided to wait for Barovic's private appeal; only five days later, he unwillingly started an investigation, noting that "it was still necessary to determine first whether (Barovic's) injuries were minor or severe". There will be a problem to provide witnesses: the editor of BK Television, Tanja Jordovic, who was in the neighbouring office during the incident, declared that she had seen nothing and had "no idea" who had hit Barovic, and the host of the program "Tete-a-Tete", young Igor Bozic, was urgently sent on summer vacation. That is why it will be very difficult to establish which of Seselj's bodyguards had beaten Barovic up.
However, Seselj and his bodyguard managed to do the impossible: for a short while they succeeded in uniting the quarrelling members of the Together coalition. Leaders of the Democratic Party, the Serb Renewal Movement and the Civic Alliance of Serbia condemned beating up of Barovic in almost identical formulations and put the "Seselj case" on the agenda of Belgrade assembly session. Five Belgrade humanitarian organizations (Humanitarian Law Fund, Helsinki Committee, Centre for Anti-war Action, Belgrade Circle, and Belgrade Centre for Human Rights) demanded Seselj's expulsion from political life and boycott of activities of his party by the media.
Evidently encouraged by the benevolent attitude of the authorities, Seselj and his associates announced new measures: they accused the "anti-Serb lobby" in Belgrade (in which they classify the mentioned humanitarian organizations, independent media and majority of opposition parties) of conducting a campaign against the president of the Serb Radical Party by order of the Croatian intelligence service, and said that what had happened to Barovic was an "educational and correctional measure" and that similar "measures" would be broadly applied in the future. This threat was just empty talk either: according to information of the Helsinki Committee of Serbia, in the night of the statement, about fifteen citizens of Zemun of non-Serb nationality received threatening telephone calls in which they were told that their names were on a list for eviction and that they had to watch what they were doing if they did not wish anything to happen to them. Is it necessary to mention that, having come to the post of the mayor of Zemun, Seselj has acquired the insight into the birth register?
Despite everything, it is hardly probable that the civic alternative in Serbia will have the strength to form a united front against Seselj, for the same reasons due to which during all these years they had not been able to establish a united front against his main sponsor - Slobodan Milosevic, who is at this moment moving to the head of the federal state. Especially because Seselj's behavior is nothing new: it is all deja vu from the time of the first great love affair of the Socialists and the Radicals between 1991 and 1993. At that time too, Seselj's men, with the discreet assistance of the police, evicted people from their homes (in Hrtkovci), while their boss waived his gun at the students in Belgrade streets, beat up teachers who were on strike and assaulted his political opponents. After his split with Milosevic in 1993, Seselj withdrew for a while, and it was sufficient for the so-called democratic opposition to forget everything he had done and even start flirting with him. Just a month ago, Vuk Draskovic and Bogoljub Karic were seen walking down by the Danube hand in hand with Seselj, while their spokesmen were, in undertones, announcing a coalition of the SPO, Karic and the Radicals. Seselj has now brutally reminded them of his true nature.
This "awakening of rats" could be expected. The latest moves of Vojislav Seselj, aimed at stirring up fear and hatred are the result of deep changes which the Socialist Party of Serbia is undergoing after the winter protests. Having felt that the post-Dayton "peace-making" orientation was undermining the foundations of his power, Milosevic has "freshened up" his party with old cadre, such as Milorad Vucelic, turning back to his original chauvinist principles. Seselj was among the first to grasp the significance of this "return to the past".
There is, however, an essential difference: in distinction from 1991 and 1992, there is no more "new territories" across the Drina, awaiting "liberators". There is a lot to do within the country: with participation of ethnic minorities in its population of 40 per cent, Serbia is still multiethnic, and Belgrade with its "low-quality Serbs" is still "the greatest Ustashe city in the world" (Ostoja Sibincic, commissar of the Serb Radical Party for Hrtkovci). Thanks to the quarrels within the democratic opposition, according to all polls, Seselj will emerge as the most powerful political player after Milosevic. What has happened to family Barbalic and to Barovic is evidently just the beginning.
Nevertheless, a petition is being signed in Belgrade streets for expulsion of Seselj from political life and raising criminal charges against the leader of the Radicals for stirring up hatred and advocating crime.