I don’t recall when I first heard of Radovan Karadžić, but I know it wasn’t any time before the run-up to the first democratic, multi-party elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Radovan, with sarcastic endearment called Rašo in my family, emerged as the leader of something called the Serbian Democratic Party, one of the three main “national” political parties that were formed to steer us away from Marxist politics and economics and towards Western, liberal, democratic capitalism. I do recall voicing scepticism about their promises, and trying to convince my eight grade classmates that ‘national’ really meant ‘nationalist’ and that with “them” at the helm Bosnia would soon look like Lebanon rather than Switzerland. And forget Lebanon, one only had to look over to Croatia to see what parties with the same names were doing, and how well that particular Westernization was going. I remember arguing that there was an alternative, pointing to Ante Marković (a.k.a. Antara, but with slightly less sarcasm) and his “reconstituted” Commies (and to drive the point home I pasted Union of Reform Forces of Yugoslavia campaign posters all over my room). But there was no alternative, not really. Not with the bad guys in Belgrade, far more powerful than Marković, itching for “armed battles,” and not with the vast majority of citizenry successfully interpellated into political, mutually exclusive Muslims, Serbs & Croats. A Cerberus coalition of said national parties won the elections in November 1990 and took us all to hell.
Fast forward to June 2013: it’s a Monday morning and I am looking into Courtroom 1 of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. Karadžić, sitting behind a huge glass screen, is complaining about some key meaning lost in translation. He appears uncomfortable, at least compared to the other nasty blast from my past: Vojislav Šešelj, a.k.a., Šešo. In the 1990s, he was Serbia’s one-man version of the Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines; today, Šešelj is the tribunal’s bête noire. Those who follow the life of the ICTY are familiar with his mixed-methods approach to delegitimizing the court and its proceedings. Hissy fits, impossible demands, hunger strikes, insults, bullying, speechifying, filibustering. Then there is the regular uploading of confidential court documents onto http://www.vseselj.com such that the names of protected witnesses are no longer protected. This certified political scientist (while writing a PhD dissertation on fascism in late 1970s Šešelj apparently spent a year teaching at the University of Michigan) knows how to assess the power of the strong as well as of the weak. He has repeatedly justified his behaviour as “only politics” (“this court is political, I am political, and I am here to destroy you”). And whenever he gets convicted of contempt of court (twice or thrice now), he laughs it off: “I don’t care, I am having the time of my life.”
He was on fire that morning as well. Invited to Karadžić’s trial as a key witness, Šešelj manages to waste hours of the court’s time on stories that feature, among other things, Swedish prostitutes, Serbian folk heroes, and European medieval history (I paraphrase again, this time from my notes: “Magdeburg, the city that’s now flooded, yes, make sure it goes into the court’s record just like I explained in my book and on my website: it was the Croat armies that massacred its citizens back in 1631”). The little time devoted to answering the questions posed by the prosecutor Alan Tieger – Karadžić, recall, is indicted for genocide; extermination; murder; persecutions; deportation; inhumane acts; terrorizing of, and unlawful attack on, civilians; and taking of hostages – testifies to Šešelj’s focus and impeccable memory. “Absolutely not,” he concludes, Karadžić had nothing to do with any conspiracy to ethnically cleanse parts of Eastern Bosnia. “What happened was a natural population transfer, that’s all.” Continue reading