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Socializing with extremists and ‘hoaxers': Tennis star Novak Djokovic's controversial visit to Bosnia

Collage made from Wikipedia photos of Novak Djokovic by Carine06 (CC BY-SA 2.0), Milan Jolovic by CarRadovan (CC BY-SA 4.0), Milorad Dodik by micki (CC BY-SA 2.0) and Semir Osmanagić by Agneta Geijer (CC0).

Last week Serbian tennis ace Novak Djokovic (also written “Đoković”) was involved in another controversy over his ties to Serb extremists. Bosnian media outlet Faktor.ba reported that during a visit to the country, Djokovic was seen in the company of both Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik and Milan Jolović, the former commander of one of the most notorious units of the Republika Srpska rebel army—the Drina Wolves.

As the Bosnian news article notes, the Drina Wolves took part in the final attack on Srebrenica in July 1995 and were responsible for capturing the fleeing Bosniak civilians and bringing them to the various execution sites after the fall of the city. 

The footage above, taken during the attack on Srebrenica shows Jolović leading one of the final attacks on the enclave. Footage on Twitter, below, shows Jolović and his men in the company of the notorious Greek Volunteer Guard, comprising members of the far-right Golden Dawn and other Greek extremists. This group was stationed in eastern Bosnia and fought alongside the Republika Srpska army, including taking part in the attack on Srebrenica.

During his stay in Bosnia, Djokovic also met with Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, arguably one of the most fervent genocide deniers, secessionists and Serb nationalists in the region. Aside from obstructing the work of the country's institutions and promoting war criminals, Dodik's government has poured millions into shady NGOs that deny the established facts of the genocide in Srebrenica.

In July, when the outgoing EU high representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Valentin Inzko introduced an amendment to the country's criminal code, making war crimes and genocide denial a punishable offense, Dodik called for the dissolution of the country. Since then he has often repeated the claim that there was no genocide in Srebrenica. Dodik has so far enjoyed impunity, and has not been questioned by the public prosecutors, even though nine NGOs and individuals have filed charges against him.

This is not the first time Djokovic (nicknamed “Nole”) has caused controversy by endorsing deeply problematic Serb nationalist figures. Last year, he was photographed with a type of brandy named “Draža,” after the notorious Second World War Chetnik leader and Nazi collaborator, Dragoljub “Draža” Mihailović.  Besides the well-documented genocidal campaign against Bosniaks in eastern Bosnia and Sandžak and war crimes against captured antifascist Partisans, the Chetniks also committed numerous atrocities against Croats, Jews, and other Serbs.

Again naïve fans benevolently comment that Nole didn't need to do this. I don't want to rain on your parade, but I think that he needed that, otherwise he would have just refused to pose with chetnik brandy.

Quasi-science and quackery links

It's possible that lack of scientific education during his formative years—which he spent perfecting his tennis skills—and his susceptibility to emotional appeals by family, friends and hosts who welcome him to their homes, make Djokovic susceptible to dubious influences.

He is also on record promoting the works of quasi-scientific and ultra-nationalist pseudo-historians and conspiracy theorists Jovan Deretić and Milan Vidojević. Djokovic used his wife's Instagram account to show his admiration for Deretić and his alternative histories, including a well-known Serb nationalist trope that Serbs are an ancient, “heavenly people” (nebeski narod).

The scientific community underestimated the impact of such claims about the historical, ethnic and religious supremacy of Serbs when Deretić started publishing them during the 1980s. Even though such “theories” were satirized, for instance, through the popular theatre play Chauvinistic Farce, they gained wide acceptance among the less educated Serbian population, inspiring ideologies that justified the mass atrocities during the violent breakup of Yugoslavia 10 years later. 

Amateur digging and construction of the government-supported tourist complex based on the “Bosnian pyramids” hoax might have damaged genuine archeological and paleontological sites around Visoko in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Photo by Wikipedia user TheBIHLover, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Another reason for Djokovic's visit to BiH was the sprawling “Bosnian Pyramids” compound in Visoko, so becoming its most famous promoter and most frequent celebrity visitor. Run by a Bosnian-American businessman and quasi-archeologist Semir Osmanagić, the “Bosnian Pyramids of the Sun” complex has become a major tourist attraction, and while it's clear that the site is of some importance when it comes to archeology, Osmanagić's claim of it being the seat of the largest and most ancient human-made pyramids has been debunked by experts. 

Osmanagić has since changed his sales pitch, claiming that the compound is a place for natural healing and regenerating. Speaking about Djokovic's most recent visit, he said that the long network of tunnels his team has excavated have regenerative characteristics, “cleansing out viruses and bacteria.”

Osmanagić has also used his clout and popularity to engage in conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 pandemic on his YouTube channel, as documented by the fact-checkers from Raskrinkavanje.ba.

While not openly endorsing anti-vaccine sentiment, Djokovic advocated against mandatory vaccinations after he was infected with COVID-19 in June 2020 at a controversial exhibition tournament he organized in Croatia. The event allegedly included parties that defied anti-pandemic measures recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Opportunities for transcendence

While over the years Djokovic and his father have been vocally supporting hardline Serbian positions against Kosovo independence, he has also shown that he can transcend the pull of Serbian nationalism. He has often advocated reconciliation between the Serbs and Croats, standing up to antagonistic nationalism that caused enormous human suffering during the 1990's wars.

When in 2008 a French newscaster mistakenly labeled him as a Croat, the Serbian tennis champ said in a statement for Croatian newspaper Jutarnji list that he didn't mind. He has often repeated that the two peoples are very similar, “almost the same” and that it's understandable that “foreigners” can't tell them apart.

Many people in the Balkans idolize Djokovic because he matches his athletics accomplishments with philanthropy,  funding humanitarian causes through his considerable wealth. On his website, he describes himself as a “holist,” meaning someone applying a holistic approach to life. Increasing his critical thinking skills when it comes to science-related issues and history and expanding the range of his empathy to all Balkan peoples who have suffered from hardline extremists would be welcome. Sadly, as things stand now, his embrace of conspiracy theories, revisionist history, quack medicine and his habit of socializing with Serb extremists undermine his positive efforts.

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