The detention of world number one Novak Djokovic in Australia over his alleged failure to meet pandemic entry requirements has fueled anger and accusations of racism in his native Serbia. Hundreds rallied in support of the tennis star, with the president calling for a “political witch hunt” and Serbia’s religious leader calling on the nation to pray for his favorite son. The vaccine-skeptical tennis star was detained earlier this week after arriving in Australia for failing to “provide reasonable evidence” of double vaccination – the medical exemption required to enter the country.
Although Serbia made a strong start with the vaccination of COVID, the campaign has stalled. This has been blamed on widespread suspicion due to a lack of trust in government and other institutions resulting from frequent corruption scandals and a general lack of transparency.
Djokovic’s fate remains uncertain as Djokovic’s relegation order is pending after he was granted temporary relief on Thursday.
The world number one men’s tennis player, awaiting an appeal at the detention facility in Melbourne, said on Instagram: “Thank you all over the world for your continued support. I can feel it and it is greatly appreciated “
“It’s a shame what is happening,” said Dusan Stojic, a 67-year-old pensioner who shed tears during a demonstration in Belgrade.
“First, you call him and tell him all the documents are fine, and then you put him in such an institution,” said 23-year-old entrepreneur David Lukovich, referring to that hotel. Serving food full of insects.
“This is not right”
“It’s not right,” he said.
Others echoed the sentiment.
Djokovic’s fan Marinko Bulatovic tweeted: “It’s not the vaccine that’s the problem, it’s because he’s the best tennis player in the Serbian and in the world.”
Marija Santik said, “Enough of all that nonsense and abuse comes from a small country in the Balkans.”
The row has struck a popular chord, with the President of Serbia offering full diplomatic support to the player.
“What is not fair is a political witch hunt by everyone, including the Australian prime minister, who pretends that the rules apply to everyone,” Alexander Vucic told the media.
The Australian ambassador to Serbia was handed a verbal protest note over the player’s “inappropriate behaviour” in Melbourne.
“Djokovic is not a criminal, terrorist or illegal migrant, but the treatment by the Australian authorities is understandable to the outrage from his fans and citizens of Serbia,” the foreign ministry said.
Balkan expert Florian Bieber of the University of Graz in Austria told AFP the controversy was being “redefined as a national issue not only by his parents, but also by the Serbian media and the president”.
“A strong victim narrative fits into the growing nationalist outlook in Serbia of a Western world that is inherently anti-Western,” he said.
Djokovic is extremely popular in Serbia for bringing new glory to his country after the bloody wars of the 1990s, when the Balkans were a slang term for war crimes and ethnic cleansing.
Discontent continues among swathes of the population in what many see as unfair treatment during Yugoslavia’s bloody breakup, when the international community hit Belgrade with sanctions and subsequent airstrikes.
History has not been kind to the Serbs. Caught between expanding empires, the country has been occupied, invaded and ruined by a series of internal wars for centuries.
During a demonstration in Belgrade on Thursday, Djokovic’s father referred to the country’s violent past while rallying in support of his son.
“More than 100 years ago there were six million of us,” Srjan Djokovic shouted into a megaphone, pointing out that the country’s population has changed little over the past century.
“Why? Because they were killing us, bombing us, taking us for granted, chasing us out of our country.”
During an earlier press conference, Mr. Djokovic compared his son’s plight to that of Jesus, saying “Novak was also crucified”.
As Serbia celebrates Orthodox Christmas this week, the leader of the Serbian Orthodox Church lent his support.
Patriarch Porphyrje wrote on social media, “The troubles and temptations you face at Christmas will only remain a hazy shadow.”
“Millions of Orthodox Serbs are praying for you.”
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