IMG_0380We want to feel alive. Being in the midst of thousands of singing, chanting, passionate partisans has its own brilliant joy.

We gather today to welcome back Vojislav Seselj, hero, murderer, Serbian patriot, war criminal, martyr, a leader of men.

The Saturday rally starts at noon and the crowd is roaring as I approach Belgrade’s Republic Square. Chanted slogans. A woman belts out a patriotic song, accompanied by hundreds of supporters. I push through the crowd and witness a panorama of faces. Mostly male.There is a lot of joy and enthusiasm, and a lot of visceral anger.

I understand not a word of it. But I get the emotional content.

Sesejl trialSeselj seems an intelligent man. He is supposed to be a big reader of classic literature and philosophy, Balzac, Zola, Stendhal. He is an articulate speaker. My years at C-SPAN and give me an appreciation for an artisan of the spoken word. He seems reasonable on stage, is working the crowd magnificently. He is talking for half an hour. Nothing like the prolific four hour opening statement he gave at his war crimes trial at The Hague. He knows how to bring it up and bring it back down, give some love and take it back, then build to a crescendo, kind of like John Cusack building a mix tape in High Fidelity.

Hey, let’s give the guy some sympathy. He has been in some form of jail/ trial/ detention for a dozen years. He showed up at The Hague voluntarily, though one suspects he knew a trial was in his future whether he volunteered or not. And due to some kind of weird fucked up process, the trial is still not over all these years. It took four years before it even started. Now, he has cancer, so they give him a get out of jail free card. They may want it back, but he’s made it clear, that’s not going to happen. So, a dozen years of hell, cancer, away from friends and family. Give him that.

Milosevic, no slouch himself in the war crimes category, once called Seselj “the personification of violence and primitivism.” High praise.

SesejlSeselj sought a “unitary Serbian state where all Serbs would live, occupying all the Serb lands.” He described Croats as a genocidal and perverted people. The International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia charged him with fifteen counts of “crimes against humanity and violations of the laws or customs or war.” For persecution of Croatian, Muslim and other non-Serbs. And murder, forced deportation, illegal imprisonment, torture and property destruction.  

After the brutal heat and humidity of Central America, I brought winter clothes specifically for this climate, intending to leave them behind when I headed to tropical climes. But it’s a beautiful day. Bright sun, clear blue skies, the iPhone Weather app says 57F but it feels like 67.

Coming to Belgrade from Berlin, visiting the Nazi and Berlin Wall exhibits and monuments, I’d say the crowd is not quite Hitler youth-level viciousness. Maybe because they are in the midst of a modern, cosmopolitan city that these days mostly eschews extreme nationalism.  The vibe is familiar, but more intense than anything I’ve experienced in the States.

Here is what I am seeing and hearing:

AudienceThe use of patriotic songs and martial music, bringing the crowd together as one voice, one unified body.

A mostly male audience (90 percent?).

A sense of victimhood, anger, grievance. The world is against us.

Some sports symbolism.

A lot of flags, national, party, maybe militia.

The body language is mixed, a lot of shaking of fists and salutes. Some participants, with military or political paraphernalia, are dour, seeking something, anticipating some form of release or validation. Others, younger, are laughing, enjoying the moment; some are listening thoughtfully.

In his four hour opening trial statement, Seselj insisted that his greatest regret was that there was no death penalty “so that proudly, with dignity, my head upright like my friend Saddam Hussein, I could die and put the final seal on my ideology. It would become immortal. I have lived long enough.” The former warlord commanded a militia that the indictment says was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of civilians.

The event ends, surprisingly, in an hour. Big applause. Orderly dispersal. Sesejl and his Serbian Radical Party got the television footage they needed. His followers got some inspiration on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. All of the Serbians I talk to this week dismiss Seselj and Milosevic and their actions, their brutality, and regret their effect on the Serbian national character and reputation. They see Sesejl as an anachronism of the past.

Time will tell.