Advocacy groups and law experts say it is disturbing that far-right MPs in Serbia suffer no consequences for hate speech and other inflammatory actions – even when they break the law.
From hate speech to burning flags, right-wing nationalist parliamentarians in Serbia are notorious both for causing incidents – and for getting away with them.
Since he returned to Serbia from the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY, in 2014, the ultranationalist Radical Party leader, Vojislav Seselj, has burned the flags of Croatia, the US, the European Union and NATO.
Recently, he trampled on the Croatian flag while an official Croatian delegation was visiting Serbia.
Katarina Golubovic, from Serbia’s Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights, YUCOM, says such acts are an attack on the dignity of a foreign country or international organisation, which is a crime in Serbia.
“Whether you trample on or burn [a flag]doesn’t matter. You are essentially publicly mocking it,“ Golubovic told BIRN.
But Seselj has never faced a court over his repeated flag burnings, even for incidents that occurred before he became an MP in 2016 and so obtained immunity from prosecution.
In May, Seselj tried to hold a rally effectively celebrating the ethnic cleansing of the village of Hrtkovci in Vojvodina, in defiance of a ban issued by the Serbian Interior Ministry.
Seselj tried to go to Hrtkovci, where his inflammatory speech against then local Croat villagers in 1992 led to their rapid forced expulsion. For this speech, Seselj was convicted of war crimes by the Hague tribunal in April 2018.
Serbian police stopped him outside the village.
Seselj again faced no consequences, despite trying to go ahead with a banned rally, which according to Golubovic violates Serbia’s Law on Public Gatherings.
In the past, nothing has happened when he has threatened members of the pacifist NGO Women in Black with violence.
It was the same when he called on his supporters to disrupt the Miredita festival in Belgrade, which is dedicated to fostering cultural exchanges with Kosovo.
Serbia’s ruling Progressive Party is the result of a split from the Radical Party in 2008.
While relations between the parties are not always cordial, the Progressives have never attempted to withdraw the immunity of any Radical Party MPs – whatever the actions of the latter.
The leader of the Progressives’ parliamentary group, Aleksandar Martinovic, has himself been the subject of discussions about discrimination.
After condemning the Belgrade Pride Parade and the LGBT community in general in 2015, he told parliament’s board for constitutional matters that the gay parade offended the morals of Serbian society.
Two NGOs filed a complaint against him to the Commissioner for the Protection of Equality.
However, Martinovic simply invoked his MP’s immunity from prosecution, and the case was dropped.
One of the NGOs, Da se zna! (Make it Known!) said Martinovic had never paid a price for his homophobic remarks.
Dragoslava Barzut, from Da se zna!, told BIRN that Serbia’s parliament never adopted a parliamentary rulebook that would penalise use of hate speech.
“Da se zna! plans to lobby for the adoption of a code of conduct that will sanction discriminatory behaviour by MPs,” Barzut said.
In the meantime, Serbian MPs continue to exercise the privilege of making incendiary comments with little or no consequences.
The Radical Party deputy speaker of parliament, Vjerica Radeta, recently came under fire for posting a mocking comment on Twitter about the death of Hatidza Mehmedovic.
The former leader of the Mothers of Srebrenica association, which lobbies for survivors of the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica, eastern Bosnia, carried out by Bosnian Serb forces, died on Monday.
“I have read about her death,” Radeta jeered on Twitter. “Who will bury her – her sons or her husband?”
All of them were all killed by Bosnian Serb forces in Srebrenica.
NGOs and opposition parties called for her dismissal or prosecution, but Golubovic, from YUCOM, said Radeta’s grotesque statement was not currently an offence in Serbia.
“It is essentially denying the genocide and insulting the victims of war … but our country does not recognise this as a crime,” Golubovic said.
The opposition Democratic Party said on Thursday that it would initiate a procedure for Radeta’s dismissal as deputy speaker, accusing her of making hate speech.
“Relativisation of crimes, revision of history and the atmosphere of hate that is continually encouraged and tolerated by the highest state officials must be stopped first in the parliament,” the Democrats said in a press release.
The proposal is unlikely to get far, however.
To be put to a vote, the request needs the support by at least 30 MPs. The Democrats, who have 16 seats, have called for support from other opposition parties.
But to dismiss Radeta, they would need the support of Serbia’s Progressive MPs as well – which in the current circumstances is highly improbable.