en español (original)

Nole, a controversial athlete

The «Tennis God» Novak Djoković (yes, I have to admit: by analogy with «Metal God» Rob Halford) is in the tennis aspect,  a living god of the greatest trio in world tennis of all times, with Federer out and a declining Rafa Nadal. But when he ventures into other matters, things start to go wrong. Okay: many of us who were lucky enough to follow his career from the beginning found him likeable; imitating this or that tennis player, «giving» his racket to a ball boy after missing an easy point, as if saying, «look, you play better than me» among other jokes.
Then, it is true that Novak Djokovic has become somewhat controversial, particularly due to the backlash surrounding his anti-vaccine stance, which resulted in his exclusion from the 2022 Australian Open. In my opinion, this stance demonstrated two things: 1) first, that no one is above the rules – no matter if you are Djoković – which led to his expulsion from Australia and thousands of memes and jokes that he undoubtedly deserved; 2) the problem with all this is that an, I would say, childish stubbornness had serious political and diplomatic consequences in Serbia. Some Serbian friends told me: «no one is above the law»… but many other Serbians were outraged and saw it as another «anti-Serbian» act. An injustice, another episode of the victim discourse «everyone against Serbia,» a counterpart to Putin’s «everyone against Russia» (I wrote about it here). From there, things got out of hand: Nole’s father compared his son’s particular «calvary» to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, and political figures turned this administrative matter into a «struggle against the freedom» of Serbia. The president of the country, Aleksandar Vučić, took advantage of the occasion, describing Djoković as a fighter for Serbia; and Serbia would fight for Novak, the truth, and justice (I wrote about it a year ago in the article «The Djoković case: a political issue,» on the Spanish friendly website «Mentes inquietas, un ágora del siglo XXI«). Vučić takes advantage of anything that may increase his popularity, including a massive demonstration last week due to the shock caused by the murder of eight children in a school.

Djoković’s statements at Roland Garros
Perhaps due to all the media and political turmoil surrounding his statements, the acclaimed tennis player took his role as a champion of the Serbian cause too seriously. And to make things worse, he said that he cannot conceive of a Grand Slam without controversies, and it motivates him. The truth is that the comment was unnecessary: it was one of the times when, in my opinion, he said something accurate or, at least, not (so much) objectionable. Therefore, I agree with Novak Djokovic that his statements were not serious. Of course, politics permeates everything, and Kosovo authorities, for example, have called for Serbian player to be sanctioned for his statements.
Let’s examine the statements.

The statements
Djokovic expressed that «Kosovo is an integral part of Serbia» and called for an end to violence. Additionally, he emphasized his sense of responsibility as a public figure and as someone with a personal connection to the region, being the son of a person born in Kosovo. So,  he «must» to support the Serbs of Kosovo.

Novak Djokovic, the Serbian tennis player, has every right to call for peace and is known for being against war. He was a victim of the war in his country and experienced the bombings by NATO in 1999, which forced him to seek refuge in basements.

Here are some key points regarding the issue:

  1. Kosovo is a historic territory of Serbia and holds significant emotional value due to the Battle of Kosovo Polje (near present-day Pristina) in 1389. In this battle, the Serbs, led by Prince Lazar Hrebeljanović (who died in the battle), were defeated by the Turks, although both sides suffered heavy casualties. A Serbian nobleman managed to infiltrate the Turkish Sultan Murad I’s camp and assassinate him, but the Turks were able to recover. However, the Serbs began to experience a gradual decline towards losing their independence as a result of this decisive confrontation. Furthermore, there are in Kosovo a lot of timeless Serbian cultural and architectural heritage, including the monasteries of Visoki Dečani, Gračanica, and Peć. The latter served as the seat of the Serbian Patriarchate in the 13th, 14th, and 17th centuries, making it a significant spiritual centre. This becomes even more important during the Ottoman domination when the church played a crucial role in uniting the people. That is why this issue is highly sensitive for the Serbs. Kosovo is not just any place.
  2. In the 1980s, Yugoslavia witnessed a deteriorating economic situation and ethnic unrest between the Serbian and Albanian communities (among others), which sadly contributed to the destruction of Tito’s Yugoslavia. The Albanians demanded increased rights granted by the 1974 Constitution, while the Serbs feared that such autonomy would be detrimental to them (resulting in many Serbs and Montenegrins leaving the autonomous Serbian province during the 1980s). Violence escalated with the repression by the Yugoslav government. In 1987, Yugoslavia began to disintegrate, and this incident was one of the many causes. There were Serbian victims, and Slobodan Milošević was sent there like asking an arsonist to put out a forest fire. The then-leader+ of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia positioned himself as a defender of the Serbs, who undoubtedly faced a complicated situation. However, he exhibited an ultranationalist discourse that foreshadowed the bloody wars of the 1990s. This ensured his political rise, and in 1989, as the President of the Socialist Republic of Serbia (within the SFRY), he returned to Kosovo on the occasion of the 600th anniversary of the mentioned Battle of Kosovo Polje. There, he delivered the infamous Gazimestan speech, where Serbian ultranationalism gained strength and resonated with the masses, with an estimated attendance of one million Serbs. The context was already heated due to a procession of the remains of Lazar Hrebeljanović. This frightened other ethnicities in Yugoslavia, such as the Croats: but the European Economic Community, and the United States too. All of them boycotted the celebrations. The Serbian leader invoked a non-violent struggle, although it was misinterpreted, according to Milošević. However, subsequent events cast doubt on the peaceful nature of the means employed.
  3. There is indeed violence in Kosovo. Additionally, Pristina has attempted to undermine negotiations with Belgrade in recent years (not only the Serbs), which the EU demands, with measures that can be seen as provocative. In April of this year, municipal elections were held in Kosovo, and the results have been disputed by the Serbian minority. In response, Pristina carried out indiscriminate repression against Serb-Kosovar protesters who were attempting to prevent the inauguration of the «elected» mayors. The voter turnout was just over 3%, as the Serbs boycotted the elections, rendering any electoral process questionable. This has led both the European Union and the United States (which also proposes sanctions against Kosovo) to urge for a repeat of the elections. The acceptance of the request for new elections by the Pristina authorities carries significant implications. The violence was significant, to the point that NATO decided to send an additional 700 troops from the Operational Reserve Forces (ORF) for the Western Balkans,…due to attacks on KFOR soldiers.
  4. The problem lies in the lack of collaboration from Serbia to alleviate the tension. On one hand, Serbian President Vučić has increased the presence of Serbian forces along the border with Kosovo. On the other hand, the Inflammatory statements of Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić, who has expressed that the possibility of an armed conflict is imminent. In response, Pristina has tweeted from the Ministry of Defense, drawing a comparison between Kosovo and Serbia regarding which country has instigated more wars. Meanwhile, the European Union also demands de-escalation in a conflict between two EU aspirants and urges the Serbs to cease boycotting the elections.
  5. Furthermore, it is worth noting the ubiquitous presence of Russia in anything related to Kosovo. From Pristina, for instance, it is asserted that Serbia is attempting to reignite ethnic tensions with the support of Russia. This revelation is hardly groundbreaking, as the position of Russia as a traditional ally of Serbia in the Kosovo issue has been known for a quarter of a century. However, the Albanian Kosovars often conveniently overlook their share of responsibility in the tensions. Such claims are reinforced by irresponsible statements, including those emanating from within Vučić’s party, calling for a «denazification of the Balkans.» It is questionable that such a statement would be made within Vučić’s party without the knowledge and consent of the Serbian leader. Moreover, this outburst employs terminology reminiscent of Russia’s rhetoric concerning Ukraine.

Finally, it is understandable that as a Serbian, Djoković opposes the independence of Kosovo, considering it as part of Serbia. This viewpoint gains significance when considering the abnormal manner in which a significant portion of the international community severed Kosovo from Serbia, despite previous assurances that the territorial integrity of Serbia (then FR Yugoslavia) would be preserved according to a United Nations resolution. Additionally, the European Union demands that Serbia normalize relations with a country that Serbia naturally does not recognize, as a condition for advancing the accession process of both Serbia and Kosovo into the Union.

Given these circumstances, I do not think that Djoković is making any condemnable statements. Supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a distinct issue from this matter. As a Serbian, he cannot be expected to agree with anything that harms his country, and it is normal for him to utilize his privileged position to launch a political «manifesto», which is non-violent. We may agree or disagree with his stance, but I consider him free to express himself. Everything suggests that the organizers of Roland Garros will not go beyond issuing a mild warning to the Serbian athlete regarding the appropriateness of using the sporting event to convey political messages—a standpoint that I also find reasonable. Sanity seems to prevail, at least for now.

In conclusion, while Djoković’s tennis skills are undeniable, his involvement in non-sports matters has been controversial. His recent statements at Roland Garros have reignited tensions, but it is debatable whether they should result in significant consequences.

Por Antonio Rando Casermeiro

Me llamo Antonio y nací en Santander en 1974, aunque soy, sobre todo, de Málaga. Soy licenciado en Derecho e Historia y doctor en Derecho Internacional Público y Relaciones Internacionales por la universidad de Málaga y quisiera dedicarme a ello. Soy un apasionado desde pequeño del este de Europa, especialmente de los Balcanes y Yugoslavia. Me encantan las relaciones internacionales y concibo escribir sobre ellas como una especie de cuento. Soy apasionado de escribir también cuentos y otras cosillas. Desde 2013 resido en Colonia (Alemania)

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