Serbia stops far-right leader rallying in war-crimes village

Vojislav Seselj barred from Hrtkovci on anniversary of infamous speech

Serbian police have prevented the ultranationalist leader Vojislav Seselj from holding a rally in a village where he called for the expulsion of ethnic Croats in 1992, during a war between the Balkan neighbours that still poisons their relations.

Security forces on Sunday sealed off Hrtkovci, 50km from Serbia's border with Croatia, after Mr Seselj and supporters vowed to defy a police ban on their demonstration and gather there on the anniversary of his inflammatory speech.

A United Nations appeal court last month sentenced Mr Seselj to 10 years in prison for instigating crimes against humanity against ethnic Croats in Hrtkovci, but he was not jailed because he spent 11 years in pretrial detention.

Mr Seselj also recently trampled on a Croatian flag in Serbia’s parliament and hurled insults at officials visiting from Zagreb, amid a fresh row between the countries that saw them declare each other’s defence ministers persona non grata.


With Hrtkovci cordoned off to nonresidents, the Radical Party leader and a few dozen supporters gathered in the nearby village of Jarak, where he said police were acting unconstitutionally and insisted "there was no danger, just like at all of our rallies".

"The famous 1992 rally that is always talked about was totally peaceful. But then a campaign of lies began about bombs being thrown and people being beaten and killed, but the truth is that no Croat was expelled from Serbia during the war. They just swapped houses peacefully with Serbs from Croatia, which we advocated," he claimed.

Crimes against humanity

In fact, the UN appeal court ruled, Mr Seselj’s call 26 years ago for Croats to be driven out of Hrtkovci did lead to the expulsion of hundreds of people, making him guilty of “instigating deportation, persecution (forcible displacement), and other inhumane acts (forcible transfers) as crimes against humanity”.

Croats made up more than 40 per cent of the village’s prewar population; now they account for only about 7.5 per cent of its 3,000 or so residents.

There was a brief scuffle on Sunday when people attending a small counterprotest organised by a liberal party unfurled a banner saying “Seselj is a war criminal”.

Mr Seselj was released from detention in The Hague in 2014 to receive cancer treatment in Serbia, where he resumed his political career; he refused to return to the Netherlands, and his country's government declined to send him back.

A high-ranking delegation from Croatia left Belgrade early after he insulted them and their flag last month, and Zagreb asked why Serbia had not applied its own law and stripped the war criminal of his seat in parliament.

Serbia’s current leaders, who include several former allies of Mr Seselj, have strained relations with Croatia’s right-wing government, and the former Yugoslav republics accuse each other of stoking nationalism and glossing over bloody chapters of their history.

In recent weeks their governments have traded jibes and imposed tit-for-tat entry bans on each other's defence ministers, while the Serbian foreign minister, Ivica Dacic, has said Belgrade is ready for a "diplomatic war" if Croatia wants one.

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin is a contributor to The Irish Times from central and eastern Europe