Vojislav Seselj was born in Sarajevo, PR Bosnia-Herzegovina, FPR Yugoslavia, to Nikola Seselj (1925–1978) and Danica Seselj (nee Misita; 1924–2007), ethnic Serbs from the Popovo Valley region of eastern Herzegovina. His parents wed in 1953 before moving to Sarajevo, where they lived on modest means in adapted housing at the old Sarajevo train station as his father was employed in the state-run ZTP railway company. His mother stayed at home and took care of her two children, Vojislav and his younger sister, Dragica. A relative on his mother's side was Chetnik commander Lt. Col. Veselin Misita.
Seselj began his elementary education in September 1961 at the Vladimir Nazor Primary School before transferring to the newly built primary school at Bratstvo i Jedinstvo. A successful student until the fourth grade, he increasingly grew uninterested with the curriculum, realizing the minimal effort he needed to produce in order to achieve adequate grades. History was his favourite subject and he generally preferred social sciences to natural ones.
He then attended First Sarajevo Gymnasium, receiving good grades. In the summer of 1971, at age 16, he accepted an offer to join the Communist League (SKJ), which got extended to him and two other youth workers as a result of the exceptional effort shown at the youth work action in Banja Luka, organized in the wake of the 1969 earthquake. He was involved with student organizations in school as the president of the gymnasium's student union and later as the president of its youth committee. Seselj acted from the platform of communist ideology, as his worldview at the time was largely shaped by the works by Marx, Engels, and Lenin, which theorized on social justice and communist ethics. He also read works by Trotsky and Mao for a time. Seselj continued going to youth work actions for summer holidays while at the gymnasium. In 1972 and 1973, he worked as a laborer around the Morava River, building embankments.
After the gymnasium, Seselj enrolled at the University of Sarajevo's Faculty of Law in fall 1973. He additionally took part in student bodies becoming a vice-dean counterpart in the student organization for fifteen months. Controversy followed him again as he openly criticized Fuad Muhic, a candidate for dean, publicly proclaiming Muhic unfit to perform the duties of that position. Muhic still got elected to the post. After being a tutor for freshmen, Seselj became a course demonstrator, holding two sets of tutorials per week, helping professors with student oral exams as well as with conference papers. In 1975, as part of a university delegation, the 21-year-old Seselj visited the University of Mannheim in West Germany for two weeks, which was his first trip abroad. He completed his 4-year undergraduate studies in two years and eight months.
Immediately after graduating in 1976, Seselj wanted a job as assistant lecturer at the University of Sarajevo's Faculty of Law, however, no assistant positions were posted at the faculty for the following school year leaving him with nothing to apply for. Seselj saw the unusual situation as Muhic's personal revenge for Seselj's public criticism.
Realizing his minimal chances of getting hired at the Faculty of Law in Sarajevo, Seselj turned his attention to other faculties. While preparing his application for the Faculty of Law in Mostar (at the time organizationally transforming from a remote unit of Sarajevo's law faculty into a separate independent educational entity) where they needed assistants for courses on constitutional law, he learned of an assistant job posting at Sarajevo University's Faculty of Political Science for a course called "Political Parties and Organizations" and decided instead to apply there. He furthermore had close friends Zdravko Grebo, Rodoljub Marjanovic, and Milan Tomic who already worked at the faculty as assistants while Grebo's mother was the faculty's dean. After learning that the 'Political Parties and Organizations' course was taught by professor Atif Purivatra, a friend and political companion of Muhic, Seselj withdrew his application fearing a rejection that would reflect badly on future vocational efforts. Through Grebo's mother, Seselj learned the faculty was about to establish the Department for People's Defense where many assistants would be needed. A month later, in September 1976, he was hired and began assisting lecturers on "War Theory". He held tutorials relying on classical Marxist literature such as The Civil War in France, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Anti-Duhring, etc., as well as such works by Lenin as The State and Revolution. Seselj delved deeper into Trotsky's works, as well as reading Isaac Deutscher's books on Trotsky and Stalin.
In parallel, Seselj began postgraduate studies, enrolling in November 1976 at the University of Belgrade's Faculty of Law. Due to employment obligations in Sarajevo, he didn't move to Belgrade, but instead went there two to three times a month to attend lectures and obtain literature. He earned a master's degree in June 1978 with a masters thesis titled The Marxist Concept of an Armed People.
In 1978, he spent two and a half months at the Grand Valley State Colleges in an exchange program with the University of Sarajevo. Seselj taught political science at the University of Michigan.
Also in 1978, after returning from the U.S., Seselj began pursuing a doctorate at the Belgrade University's Faculty of Law. After submitting his dissertation in early fall 1979, he chose specialization at the University of Greifswald in East Germany. He then obtained his doctorate on 26 November 1979 after successfully defending his dissertation (doctoral thesis) titled The Political Essence of Militarism and Fascism, which made him the youngest PhD holder in Yugoslavia at 25 years of age.
In December 1979 Seselj joined the Yugoslav People's Army to serve the mandatory military service and was stationed in Belgrade. He completed his army service in November 1980, but in the meantime he had lost his position at the University of Sarajevo's Faculty of Political Sciences.
In the early 1980s, Seselj began to associate more with individuals from dissident intellectual circles in Belgrade, some of whom had Serbian nationalist political leanings. He repeatedly held Muslim professors at the Faculty of Political Sciences responsible for his situation, openly criticizing Atif Purivatra, Hasan Susic, and Omer Ibrahimagic for having harmed his career and denouncing them as Pan-Islamists. He took his criticism to the literary journal Knjizevna rec, where he further reproached Purivatra, Susic and Muhamed Filipovic for having taken part in an international conference in Madrid that focused on Muammar al-Gaddafi's Green Book. Seselj described the views expressed in their contributions to the conference as "pan-Islamist".
Despite the controversies, in September 1981 Seselj rejoined the Faculty of Political Sciences where he was asked to teach courses on international relations. The Faculty of Political Sciences, as a breeding ground for future politicians, was closely controlled and overseen by the Communist Party, and outspoken Seselj quickly drew the attention of party officials. He openly supported another prominent young intellectual, Nenad Kecmanovic, who was himself embroiled in a controversy that drew criticism from some sections of the communist nomenklatura in Bosnia due to his writings in NIN magazine.
Still, the biggest controversy was raised when Seselj came up against faculty colleague Brano Miljus. A protege of Hamdija Pozderac and Branko Mikulic (SR Bosnia-Herzegovina's highest and most powerful political figures at the time), Miljus was well positioned within the communist apparatus as the secretary of the Bosnia-Herzegovina Communist League's Sarajevo branch. Seselj dissected Miljus's master's degree thesis and accused him of plagiarizing more than 40 pages in it from the published works by Marx and Edvard Kardelj. Seselj's also criticised the highest political echelons, particularly Pozderac who was the reviewer of Miljus's master's degree thesis. As a result, a power struggle spilled outside the faculty and into the political institutions and corridors of power. Other faculty members and intellectuals to offer their support to Seselj included Boro Gojkovic, Dzemal Sokolovic, Hidajet Repovac, Momir Zekovic and Ina Ovadija-Musafija. The Pozderac side was stronger; Seselj was expelled from the Communist League on 4 December 1981.
By spring 1982, barely six months after being re-hired, his position at the Faculty of Political Sciences was in jeopardy. He ended up being demoted to the Institute for Social Research (Institut za drustvena istrazivanja), an institution affiliated with the Faculty. Belgrade intellectuals, mostly writers and researchers in the social sciences, came to his defense by writing letters of protest to the government of the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, to the Central Committee of the League of Communists of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and to the Faculty of Political Science in Sarajevo. He became critical of the way in which the national question was dealt with in Yugoslavia: he spoke out in favour of the use of force against Kosovo Albanians and denounced the passivity of the Serbian political leadership in handling the Kosovo crisis. In his view the Muslims of Bosnia and Herzegovina were not a nation but a religious group. He expressed his concern of seeing Bosnia and Herzegovina turn into a republic dominated by Muslims. He began to be spied on by UDBA agents. Seselj's first arrest took place on 8 February 1984, the second day of the Sarajevo Olympics. He was on a train from Sarajevo heading to Belgrade when the secret police burst on board around Podlugovi station and seized some of his writings that he had in the suitcase. Among the agents handling his arrest that day was Dragan Kijac (later Republika Srpska state security chief).
In Doboj, Seselj was taken off the train, transferred into a police Mercedes, and transported to Belgrade where he was questioned for 27 hours before being released and informed that he would be contacted again. After getting back to Sarajevo, UDBA took him in twice more for questionings, which were handled by Rasid Music and Milan Krnjajic. According to Seselj, they had the transcripts of the various conversations he had with some of his closest friends in which he and his friends openly criticized subjects ranging from specific political figures and the communist regime in general, and were trying to get him to implicate them as a basis for "a group trial for ethnic balance purposes, [...] a Serbian group to persecute since they just convicted Izetbegovic's Muslim one."
On 20 April 1984, he was arrested at a private apartment in Belgrade among the group of 28 individuals during the lecture given by Milovan Dilas as part of Free University, a semi-clandestine organization that gathered intellectuals critical of the communist regime. Seselj spent four days in prison before being released.
However, Seselj was a free man for barely three weeks. In mid-May 1984, Stane Dolanc, the Slovene representative in Yugoslav Presidency and the all-powerful longtime state security chief, gave an interview to TV Belgrade, explicitly going after Seselj for his unpublished manuscript Odgovori na anketu-intervju: Sta da se radi? in which Seselj calls for "reorganization of the Yugoslav federalism, SFR Yugoslavia with only four constituent republics (Serbia, Macedonia, Croatia and Slovenia), abolishing of the single-party system, and the abolishing of artificial nationalities". Two days later, on 15 May 1984, Seselj was arrested again in Sarajevo. Several days after being jailed at Sarajevo's Central Prison, he began a hunger strike, which attracted the attention of the foreign press. In jail, he passed the time by reading without devoting much effort to preparing his defense at the impending trial. A few weeks later, his then wife Vesna Mudresa gave birth to their first child – a boy named Nikola, after Seselj's father – however, Seselj refused to end the hunger strike even after being told this. Weak, frail, and with rapidly deteriorating overall health, he eventually relented on the last day of the trial, ending the strike after 48 days.
Several days later, on 9 July 1984, he was given an eight-year sentence. The verdict delivered by presiding judge Milorad Potparic concluded that Seselj "acted from the anarcho-liberal and nationalist platform thereby committing the criminal act of counterrevolutionary endangerment of the social order". The single most incriminating piece of evidence cited by the court was the unpublished manuscript that the secret police found in Seselj's home. On appeal, the Supreme Court of SFR Yugoslavia reduced the sentence to six years, then to four, and finally two.
Seselj served the first eight months of his sentence in Sarajevo before getting transferred to prison in Zenica in January 1985, where he was placed in quarantine and isolated from other inmates for three weeks while medical checks and general psychological observation were conducted in order to come up with a rehabilitation plan and program during his prison stay. From the start his attitude he informed the prison officials of his refusal to do any labour, reasoning that "since jailed communists didn't have to do prison labour in the pre-World War II capitalist Yugoslavia, I too, as someone espousing anti-communist ideology, refuse to do labour in a communist prison".
His conduct earned him multiple stays in solitary confinement that initially lasted two weeks but were later extended to a whole month. During his first solitary confinement stay he went on another hunger strike. A week into his strike, he was beaten by the guards in an effort to force him to stop, but he did not, lasting 16 days without food. In total, out of his fourteen months in Zenica, six and a half were spent in solitary confinement. He was released in March 1986 – two months early due to continuous pressure, protests and petitions by intellectuals throughout Yugoslavia and abroad, many of whom would later become his political opponents. Upon release from prison, Seselj permanently moved to Belgrade. According to John Mueller, Seselj "later seems to have become mentally unbalanced as the result of the torture and beatings he endured while in prison".
In 1989 Seselj returned to the United States where Momcilo Dujic, a Chetnik leader from World War II living there in exile, bestowed on Seselj the title Vojvoda (duke) of the Chetniks, to make a "unitary Serbian state where all Serbs would live, occupying all the Serb lands". Together with Vuk Draskovic and Mirko Jovic, Seselj founded the anti-communist Chetnik party Serbian National Renewal (SNO) in late 1989. In March 1990, together with Draskovic, he however went on to form the monarchist party Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO). that he soon left again to form the more radical Serbian Chetnik Movement (SCP). Because of its name the party was denied registration, but was merged in March 1991 with the National Radical Party (NRS) creating the Serbian Radical Party (SRS) under his presidency.
In late 1991, during the Battle of Vukovar, Seselj went to Borovo Selo to meet with a Serbian Orthodox Church bishop and publicly described Croats as a genocidal and perverted people. The paramilitary group White Eagles active at the time in the Yugoslav Wars was reportedly associated with him, being referred to as Seseljevci ("Seselj's men").
In May and July 1992, Seselj visited the Vojvodina village of Hrtkovci and publicly started the campaign of persecution of local ethnic Croats. Also in 1992, a delegation led by Seselj met with the false Prince Alexei Dolgorukov offering Alexei the Serbian crown which Alexei claimed to have accepted. When a communique of the European Monarchist Association exposed the cheating, Seselj did away with monarchism turning back to republicanism.
In the elections of December 1992, the SRS won 27 percent of the vote versus the 40 percent won by the Socialist Party of President Slobodan Milosevic. His relationship with Milosevic was amicable during the first years of the Yugoslav Wars. Seselj and his party were in effect Milosevic's close allies who helped them orchestrate the mass layoffs of journalists in 1992, and Seselj publicly proclaimed their backing of Milosevic as late as August 1993. In September 1993, however, Seselj and Milosevic came into conflict over Milosevic's withdrawal of support for Republika Srpska in the Bosnian War, and Milosevic described Seselj as "the personification of violence and primitivism". Seselj was jailed in 1994 and 1995 for his opposition to Milosevic.
In July 1997, Seselj made a guest appearance on BKTV's Tete-a-tete talk duel programme with lawyer Nikola Barovic as the other duelist. The duel quickly degenerated into an exchange of verbal antagonism and ad hominem attacks that culminated in Barovic throwing water from a glass in Seselj's face. Sometime later Barovic was physically assaulted by Seselj's security detail. Seselj stated that Barovic slipped on a banana peel and tumbled down a flight of stairs.
In 1998, as violence in the Serbian province of Kosovo increased, Seselj joined Milosevic's national unity government, siding briefly with the pro-Milosevic government. Seselj was appointed deputy president of the Serbian government in 1998. In September 1998, he objected to foreign media and human rights organizations acting in Yugoslavia, saying:
The Human Rights Watch condemned the statement.
During the 1999 Kosovo War and the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, he and his political party were willing to support Milosevic, but after three months of bombardment they were the only party to vote against the withdrawal of FR Yugoslav security forces from Kosovo.
In late February 2003, Seselj surrendered to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) on the indictment of "eight counts of crimes against humanity and six counts of violations of the laws or customs of war for his alleged participation in a joint criminal enterprise". In 2005, Seselj made headlines when he was asked to read a letter which he earlier sent to the ICTY that stated his contempt for the court. The letter was read in front of cameras by Seselj and contained copious amounts of insults and expletives aimed at the top Tribunal officials and judges. In his letter, Seselj said that the presiding judge has only "the right" (mocking the Hague's judges) to perform oral sex on him, and he referred to Carla Del Ponte as "the prostitute". In custody, he wrote Kriminalac i ratni zlocinac Havijer Solana (Felon and War Criminal Javier Solana), a criticism of the NATO Secretary General (and the current High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy and the Secretary-General of the Council of the European Union and the Western European Union) who led the 1999 war in Kosovo.
On 2 December 2006, about 40,000 people marched in the Serbian capital of Belgrade in support of Seselj during his 28-day hunger strike in The Hague after the ICTY denied him the right to choose his own defence counsel. Speaking at the rally, Radical Party secretary Aleksandar Vucic said "He's not fighting just for his life. But he's fighting for all of us who are gathered here. Vojislav Seselj is fighting for Serbia!" Seselj ended the hunger strike on 8 December after being allowed to present his own defence. While in custody in The Hague, Seselj led his party's list of contenders for the January 2007 general election.
Under the ICTY indictment, Seselj was charged with 15 counts of crimes against humanity and violations of the laws or customs or war. The first of these charges is for persecution of Croatian, Muslim and other non-Serbs in Vukovar, Samac, Zvornik and Vojvodina. The other charges include murder, forced deportation, illegal imprisonment, torture and property destruction during the Yugoslav wars. Seselj's aide, Ljubisa Petkovic, was found guilty by the ICTY's Trial Chamber III of contempt for refusing to appear as a Chamber's witness in Seselj's trial. Petkovic was released on 26 September from the ICTY Detention Unit. He had been sentenced to four months' imprisonment, credit being given for the three months and 14 days already spent in the Detention Unit.
On 11 February 2009, after 71 witnesses had been heard and with the expected conclusion of the prosecution's case seven hours away, the presiding judges suspended Seselj's trial indefinitely at the prosecutors' request. The prosecutors alleged that witnesses were being intimidated. Seselj claimed that the true motive of the prosecutors was that they were losing their case. He claimed the court had presented numerous false witnesses to avoid having to acquit him and said it should pay him damages for "all the suffering and six years spent in detention". One of the three judges voted against the suspension of the trial stating that it was "unfair to interrupt the trial of someone who has spent almost six years in detention". A contempt of court case against Seselj was opened for having revealed, in a book he had written, the identities of three witnesses whose names had been ordered suppressed by the tribunal, and for which he was sentenced to 15 months imprisonment by the ICTY.
On 25 November 2009, it was announced that Seselj's trial would resume on 12 January 2010. The trial resumed on schedule and continued until 17 March 2010. On 10 March 2010, the weekly ICTY press briefing announced that Seselj was scheduled to appear in court on 20 April 2010 for contempt of court for allegedly disclosing court restricted information on 11 protected witnesses. This is the second time he has been charged with contempt. In July 2009 he was found guilty of contempt on similar charges involving two protected witnesses and was sentenced to fifteen months in jail. On 17 March 2010, the weekly ICTY press briefing announced that "The trial of Vojislav Seselj has been adjourned until further notice, pending checks on the health status of the remaining four Chamber witnesses". In the weekly ICTY briefing on 24 March stated "The trial of Vojislav Seselj is expected to continue on Tuesday at 14:15 in Courtroom I with the testimony of one of the four remaining Trial Chamber witnesses". On 14 April 2010, the weekly ICTY press briefing announced that with only one witness still to be heard, on 30 March 2010 Seselj trial was adjourned until further notice but was likely to resume in May 2010, after Seselj's second contempt proceeding initiated against him by the Tribunal have ended.
Prosecutors demanded a 28-year sentence against Seselj for allegedly recruiting paramilitary groups and inciting them to commit atrocities during the Balkan wars of the early 1990s. In closing remarks at his war crimes trial on 14 March 2012, Seselj said the Yugoslav tribunal empowered by the U.N. Security Council is actually a creation of Western intelligence agencies and it doesn't have jurisdiction in his case. He reportedly vowed "to make a mockery of his trial".
In September 2011, the ICTY rejected Seselj's bid to have his long-running trial discontinued. In his submission to the court, Seselj stated that his right to be tried in a reasonable amount of time has been violated, and called the situation "incomprehensible, scandalous and inappropriate". However, the bench ruled that "there is no predetermined threshold with regard to the time period beyond which a trial may be considered unfair on account of undue delay" and also argued that Seselj "failed to provide concrete proof of abuse of process". Of all ICTY indictees, Seselj spent the longest time without a verdict being delivered.
On 6 November 2014, the ICTY granted Seselj provisional release. Seselj was welcomed home in Belgrade after spending more than 11 years on what proved to be an inconclusive trial at the Hague. His release was granted provisionally on the basis of a diagnosis of metastatic cancer and deteriorating health.
Controversial writer and former ICTY spokesperson Florence Hartmann, herself indicted and convicted by the ICTY for contempt, vehemently opposed any release of Seselj as impermissible on the grounds that a verdict had allegedly already been reached and written but not disclosed.
Seselj was diagnosed with metastatic cancer and underwent surgery to remove a tumor from his colon on 19 December 2013, and underwent chemotherapy.
Seselj authored close to 200 books, mostly in the form of (court) documents and transcripts from interviews and public appearances. Some of the book titles are formulated as insults to his enemies, ICTY judges and prosecutors, and domestic and foreign political figures.Bartrop, Paul R. (2012). A Biographical Encyclopedia of Contemporary Genocide. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-0-313-38679-4.
Cigar, Norman (1995). Genocide in Bosnia: The Policy of "Ethnic Cleansing". College Station, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 978-1-58544-004-7.
Mueller, John (Summer 2000). "The Banality of 'Ethnic War'" (PDF). International Security 25 (1). doi:10.1162/016228800560381. ISSN 0162-2889. Retrieved 20 December 2012.