Only Some Serbian Presidential Hopefuls Are Called ‘Killers’

The pro-regime media are busy pinning flakey murder allegations on two likely opposition contenders for the presidency – while keeping silent about the more serious allegations hanging over the other two. 

You don’t have to be a murder suspect in order to run for Serbia’s top job – but you may become one anyway.

Less than four months ahead of the Serbian presidential elections, the official list of candidates remains uncertain. But even before the campaign has started, two out of the four most likely to run are already being implicated in murder cases, and the remaining two have similar issues.

Take Vuk Jeremic, the former foreign minister who recently competed – and lost – in the race for the position of United Nations Secretary General. As soon as Jeremic started eyeing up the Serbian presidency as a potential candidate of the united opposition, Belgrade’s nasty tabloids concocted a story that he was somehow involved in the unresolved death of two soldiers in October 2004.

The soldiers, who were on guard duty, were found dead with gunshot wounds at their post in Topcider, Belgrade’s largest army base. The initial investigation concluded it was murder/suicide, but the probe was reopened after forensic evidence showed that a third person – or persons – was likely involved. Who killed them and why is still a mystery, but speculation abounds.

Most of it revolves around the rumour that the base was then a hiding place for the fugitive Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic, who has in the meantime been captured and put on trial at the UN war crimes court in The Hague. Now the Serbian tabloids claim that they have finally cracked the case: the soldiers were allegedly killed by “NATO headhunters” who were trying to capture Mladic in order to extract the reward for detaining him, and Jeremic was directing them and covered their tracks.  

The sole basis of this allegation is a statement from one of the witnesses, that Jeremic, who was a foreign policy adviser to President Boris Tadic at the time of the murders, somehow heard about the guardsmen’s death ahead of military top brass.

The very idea that NATO operatives could penetrate a well-guarded army compound in Belgrade, kill two soldiers in broad daylight, and then escape unnoticed, is preposterous.

It’s even more preposterous to imagine young Jeremic, an Oxford and Harvard scholar, as their guiding hand. But it wasn’t preposterous enough for Serbian state prosecutor’s office, which ordered police to interview Jeremic just two days after the tabloid story came out.

The other potential opposition candidate, Ombudsman Sasa Jankovic, is also a murder suspect, according to the same tabloids. This case is much older and occurred in 1993, when a friend of Jankovic’s stole his handgun and used it to commit suicide. Jankovic, who was nowhere near his friend at the time, was briefly questioned and immediately released.

Somehow, the old files, including the gun’s serial number and a photocopy of Jankovic’s permit, were leaked to the selected press, who claim that the Ombudsman killed his friend and staged a suicide to cover it up.

Although there’s not a shred of evidence for any of those claims, they are being repeated over and over by government-friendly tabloids and are being carried by popular commercial TV stations, so at least some of them will stick during the campaign.

It is even more worrying that the prosecutor’s office, which usually tiptoes around politically sensitive cases, was so eager to have Jeremic questioned, although he most likely will not be charged. The result is that the reputation of both Jeremic and Jankovic is tarnished ahead of the race, and once the campaign officially kicks off, things are likely to get worse.

Now let’s take a look at the third candidate, Vojislav Seselj, leader of Serbian Radical Party. Unlike Jeremic and Jankovic, he has already declared that he will run for president. Seselj spent nine years at the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague, ICTY, where he was tried for his role in organising ethnic cleansing and other atrocities during the Yugoslav wars. Eventually, he was acquitted in the first degree, but the prosecution is appealing against the verdict.

The funny thing is that almost no one in Serbia has questioned Seselj’s innocence, even though that his trial in The Hague was ridden with all sorts of irregularities. The same media that are involved in character assassinations of other would-be candidates treat the ultra-nationalist Seselj as a perfectly respectable mainstream politician.

His statements, often outrageous and insulting, are printed on the front pages, and he has access to political talk shows that only government officials enjoy. The allegations that he was responsible for the deaths or expulsion of tens of thousands of Croats and Bosniaks do not hurt him one bit - in fact, it seems they are only aiding his campaign.

It is not yet clear whether Tomislav Nikolic, the current president, will run, but his closet is also not skeleton-free. In 2005, the human rights activist Natasa Kandic accused Nikolic, who was a part of Yugoslav Army expedition force in 1991, of killing two elderly Croatian women near the town of Vukovar.

Nikolic, who was Seselj’s right-hand man at the time, sued for libel and won – Kandic could not substantiate her claim. This case is now forgotten, and was not even mentioned during Nikolic’s 2012 presidential campaign.

So, all four leading candidates for the post of President of Serbia have some sort of murder allegations pinned to their names. That ought to tell you something about the state of the country - and what it takes to be a politician here.

The fact that the allegations, which are wrapped in wild conspiracy theories, seem to work, while accusations of war crimes don’t do any political damage, tells you more.