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Djokovic, Dayton, and COVID-19: Has Scott Morrison Stoked Tensions in the Balkans?

20 Jan 2022
By Dr Elliot Dolan-Evans
Novak Djokovic holding a Serbian flag, 2012. Source: Simon Williams

The media furore around Novak Djokovic has missed the link between the Serbian sports star and the background of rising ethnic tensions in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Australia’s actions may carry significant consequences for peace in the Balkans.

The latest media circus surrounding the Australian federal government may have ramifications past Australian shores, all the way to Bosnia and Herzegovina. The perception of unjust treatment toward Serbians by the international community, vis-à-vis Djokovic’s humiliation at the hands of the Australian federal government, may impact rising ethnic tensions in Bosnia.

The story has been so extensively reported upon, the timeline barely warrants recounting: the men’s world number one tennis star, Novak Djokovic, entered Australia on 5 January to compete in the Australian Open after receiving a medical exemption due to being, presumably, unvaccinated from COVID-19. This “special treatment,” though not entirely surprising considering previous exceptions from COVID-19 restrictions for the rich and famous, created a furious uproar in the Australian population, exhausted by the COVID-19 crisis and lockdowns. To contain the resulting furore, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and other members of the government intervened, cancelled Djokovic’s visa, held him at the border, then detained him at the Park Hotel, the site of Australia’s ignominious lock-up for asylum seekers. The Federal Circuit Court rejected the cancellation of Djokovic’s visa on 10 January, an embarrassing result for Morrison and the federal government, who have been searching for a credible distraction from the collapsing Australian healthcare system, lack of COVID-19 tests, and surging levels of illness within the community. Not wishing to appear weak on the issue of border protection, a signature policy of the coalition, Immigration Minister Alex Hawke overturned the decision, and Djokovic was deported on 16 January.

Despite the domestic political ramifications this may have for the Australian government, what has not been reported upon are the broader geopolitical consequences the Djokovic saga may have for peace in the Balkans. While Djokovic was imprisoned in Australia’s asylum seeker detention hotel, Serbians in Bosnia marked the 30th anniversary of the creation of Republika Srpska on 9 January. The Christian Orthodox Serb-majority Republika Srpska is an entity that together with the Federation of Bosnia — constituted of Muslim Bosniaks and Roman Catholic Croats — makes up a large part of the Bosnia and Herzegovina state. These groups have been brought together, mostly by international pressure, since the 1995 Dayton Accords, which ended the bloody 1992-95 Bosnian War.

The Bosnian War was a humanitarian catastrophe fought between the ethnic peoples of Bosnia following the breakup of Yugoslavia, which turned bloodier with an aggressive US-led NATO intervention that eventually ended the conflict. While the Dayton Accords, forced upon the parties in a US-managed process initialled in Ohio, has allowed international actors to primarily shape the destinies of all peoples in Bosnia following the war, only symbolic power is wielded through the Bosnian tripartite presidency that represents the three major ethnic groups — Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs. Through the High Representative to Bosnia, the EU has wielded almost absolute power, depoliticising society through the imposition of a capitalist economic model grounded in a logic of privatisation and oligarchy, locking all of Bosnia’s constituted peoples out of economic and political power, despite their resistance.

This is the broader, though very brief, contextual background to the 30th anniversary of the Republika Srpska on 9 January and Djokovic’s concurrent internment. However, this celebration, which has been deemed unconstitutional and illegal by Bosnia’s Constitutional Court, is inculcated with deep political significance, especially as ethnic tensions have rapidly percolated across Bosnia in the last year. 9 January is a Serbian Orthodox religious holiday, St. Stephen’s Day, and has now been declared a secular holiday by the Republika Srpska Assembly, in defiance of Bosnia’s legislature. This year’s celebration saw thousands pour out across the Republika, singing Serbian nationalist songs and allegedly glorifying Serbian war criminals. Furthermore, the Serbian member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, Milorad Dodik, has stepped up rhetoric threatening to secede from Bosnia’s armed forces, judiciary, and tax administration, receiving US sanctions in the process. The Republika Srpska National Assembly passed a resolution in December to make good Dodik’s threat and formally begin the withdrawal from state institutions. The EU now considers the secession of the Republika Srpska to be a distinct possibility, which may spark a slide into a new, bloody ethnic conflict.

But where does Djokovic’s detention in Australia fit into this complicated geopolitical picture? It is evident that Djokovic is a national hero of the Serbian state for his exemplary tennis performances, philanthropic work, and membership of the Serbian Orthodox Church. However, he is equally revered in the Republika Srpska, having been awarded the Order of Republika Srpska by Dodik himself. The decoration is shared by Radovan Karadžić, Ratko Mladić, and Biljana Plavšić, who committed war crimes in the Bosnian War. Djokovic also appears to enjoy close ties with Dodik, and has socialised with Dodik and commanders of paramilitary units active in the Bosnian war. Even during his recent detention in Australia, the entity-level president of Republika Srpska, Željka Cvijanović, sent messages of support to Djokovic, and his countenance was projected upon buildings in the Republika’s largest city.

It is in this international political milieu that the Australian federal government has sought to make a national villain out of Novak Djokovic, the hero of both Serbia and the Republika Srpska. As emphasised by the Serbian Foreign Ministry, it is evident to Serbian political opinion that Djokovic has purposely been made a casualty of a domestic political game by Scott Morrison, and was deliberately humiliated. In the context of Serbians in Bosnia feeling justly — though, along with Bosniaks and Croats alike — excluded from political and economic justice in their own country due to the dictates of the EU-led Dayton Accords, along with exploding nationalist currents and secessionist discourse in the Republika Srpska, the Djokovic saga has fuelled the victimhood narrative of such discourse. This appears to Serbians in Serbia and the Republika Srpska to be yet another example of the international community being hostile to the Serbian cause, engendering nationalist sentiment at the exact moment of heightened secessionist rhetoric and action.

The question that seems to be of key import now is whether the domestic political point scoring by the Morrison government will have ramifications for the stability of the Balkans. It may not necessarily be the case, but this is yet another example of where the prime minister has difficulty conceiving of any consequences of his actions that extend past the 24-hour news cycle. As people mobilise globally against the possible collapse of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Morrison should take heed in casting his political stratagems past the end of his nose.

Dr Elliot Dolan-Evans is a previous AIIA intern, a medical doctor, junior lawyer, and holds a PhD in International Relations from Monash University. His research interests are in the political economy of health and Eastern Europe. Elliot is currently an Assistant Lecturer at the Monash University Medical School. 

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.