On Sunday, June 27, voters in Serbia will choose a new president from two opposition politicians. The choice could not be starker: moderate Boris Tadic offers to build on the political legacy of the late Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic. Tomislav Nikolic is an ultra-nationalist with close ties to Vojislav Seselj, currently in custody at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) on war crimes charges.
Nikolic personifies nationalist policies that over the last decade have repeatedly wrecked chances for peace and relative prosperity in the former Yugoslavia. Like his party leader Vojislav Seselj, Nikolic continues to advocate a Greater Serbia, even while asserting that he opposes war as a method of achieving it. Nikolic recently stated that he felt no sorrow for the murder of an independent Serbian journalist in 1999. Despite these dubious credentials, Nikolic won most votes in the first round of the presidential elections on June 13.
If nationalism still holds sway over many voters in Serbia, it is because the country has failed to come to terms with its past, and with the issue of war crimes in particular. Since former president Slobodan Milosevic fell from power in October 2000, war crimes accountability has taken a back seat, even among moderate politicians. As result, Serbia has developed a moral numbness that makes fertile ground for extremism.
To legitimize their indifference to the issue of war crimes, Serbian elites argue that demands for Serbia’s cooperation with the ICTY strengthen the nationalists. Some observers in the West buy into this proposition. According to this view, the Tribunal was to blame for the split between Zoran Djindjic and then-Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica, triggered when Milosevic was sent to the Tribunal in mid-2001. When Djindjic was assassinated in March 2003, critics were quick to blame the court’s intransigence for the tragedy. In December last year, when Seselj’s party won a plurality of votes in the parliamentary elections, the critics again held the Tribunal responsible.
But is it really true that Serbia’s transition is in jeopardy because of a war crimes court? And should the international community tone down its demands for Serbia’s full cooperation with the ICTY? The answer to both questions is no.
As the example of neighboring Croatia shows, cooperation with the ICTY is no obstacle to democratic transition. Last Friday, Croatia became an official candidate for membership in the European Union. Croatia had previously transferred all but one war crimes indictees to the Tribunal The government’s principled stance in favor of cooperation relegated hardcore nationalists to a marginal status.
What prevents a similar development in Serbia? A lack of leadership on the war crimes issue. Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has openly disparaged the ICTY. Kostunica’s nemesis, Zoran Djindjic favored cooperation with the ICTY, but for wrong reasons, portraying cooperation as a means of avoiding economic isolation, rather than as a matter of justice. This pragmatist approach did more harm than good: most Serbs came to see transfers of indictees to the Tribunal as a business transaction and reacted with revulsion. This, in turn, made cooperation more difficult and weakened the government.
Public opinion in Serbia about the ICTY has begun to shift, despite its negative portrayal by local politicians and media. A recent survey by a credible Belgrade pollster (Medium Gallup) indicates that, for the first time, a majority favors the surrender of indicted Serbian nationals to the ICTY.
Europe should encourage the rising number of Serbs whose common sense tells them that accountability for war crimes is both moral and sensible. Kowtowing to nationalism has only weakened democratic consolidation in Serbia. While it is ultimately for the Serbs credibly to confront the issue of war crimes, Europe should help them by rejecting the suggestion that justice hinders democracy.