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Djokovic Serves Up Another Controversy With Davis Cup Song Invoking 'Greater Serbia'

Novak Djokovic competes in the Davis Cup in Malaga on November 25. "I'm not a politician," Djokovic has said, "but as a Serb, what's happening in Kosovo hurts me."
Novak Djokovic competes in the Davis Cup in Malaga on November 25. "I'm not a politician," Djokovic has said, "but as a Serb, what's happening in Kosovo hurts me."

Organizers of world tennis's biggest annual team event faced a Balkan backlash after all-time great Novak Djokovic and his Serbian teammates were introduced and feted at last weekend's Davis Cup finals with a song seen by many as endorsing a so-called Greater Serbia.

The song, Rejoice, O Serbian Nation, calls for Serbia's tricolor to be flown over parts of neighboring Kosovo -- a mostly ethnic Albanian Muslim former province that declared independence in 2008 -- and Montenegro, a NATO member that broke away from its union with Serbia in 2006.

The International Tennis Federation (ITF), which stages the Davis Cup for men's national teams and the Billie Jean King Cup for women, has maintained official silence over the furor that erupted after the song was played during player introductions in the southern Spanish city of Malaga on November 25 and at other crucial moments in the weekend competition.

The Davis Cup is billed as the largest annual team competition in the world, held in a variety of European locations, and has grown to include around 120 teams since its origins as a U.S.-British affair in 1900.

The ITF declined to respond to RFE/RL's questions about Davis Cup guidelines or whether it is looking into the matter. But the Davis Cup's official social media channels soon deleted posts of the song blaring through the arena as the Serbian team took to the court to face eventual champion Italy. Other accounts, however, including pro-Serb ones, quickly reposted clips of some of the deleted scenes. Neither the Serbian Tennis Federation, Serbia's Sports Ministry, nor Djokovic's representatives responded to questions about the use of the song.

Kosovar media outlet @kos_data was among those who shared clips of the musical introductions before Serbia's semifinal matchup with Italy, which it lost 2:1.

It also shared video on X, formerly known as Twitter, of the song playing after Djokovic closed out an earlier Davis Cup match against Britain's Cameron Norrie.

Rejoice, O Serbian Nation is a homage to Serb nationhood, Orthodoxy, and historic battles and causes. It was first sung in 2020 by Montenegrin Serb singer Danica Crnogorcevic to mark an Orthodox holiday that honors soldiers in the key 14th-century Battle of Kosovo to defeat Ottoman troops.

The song was quickly adopted by protesters -- led by Serbian Orthodox priests -- who were encouraging voters to support a more church-friendly Montenegrin government in August 2020, a shift that ultimately led to the exit of longtime leader Milo Djukanovic. Around one-third of Montenegrin residents regard themselves as Serbs, and the 2006 independence referendum and break with fellow post-Yugoslav republic Serbia remain sensitive topics.

The song denies Montenegrin identity and Montenegrin statehood. The song also promotes Serbian borders in which both Montenegro and Kosovo are parts of its territory."
-- Serbian politician Balsa Bozovic

Serb nationalists at home and around the Balkan region, still recovering from the ethnically fueled wars in the 1990s, have embraced Rejoice, O Serbian Nation, with lyrics such as, "Let the Serbian flag fly from Prizren to Rumija." At a protest on November 25 in Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb entity of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the song was sung to protest the celebration of Bosnia's "statehood day."

Prizren is Kosovo's second-most populous city, with about 200,000 residents, and lies about 50 kilometers from the nearest border with Serbia. Rumija is one of Montenegro's highest peaks and is more than 100 kilometers from the border with Serbia. Long a symbol of interfaith harmony, Rumija was the scene of a notorious standoff between secession-minded Montenegrin authorities and the Serbian Orthodox Church backed by troops in 2005-06, ahead of Montenegro's decision to abandon a political union with Serbia.

"The song denies Montenegrin identity and Montenegrin statehood," Balsa Bozovic, a longtime member of the Serbian parliament and a leader of the Regional Academy for Democratic Development, a Serbian NGO, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "The song also promotes Serbian borders in which both Montenegro and Kosovo are parts of its territory."

Bozovic expressed disappointment that Djokovic -- arguably tennis's best-ever men's player -- "doesn't show that he understands that his actions legitimize not one song, because it's just a song, but a dangerous ideology that resulted in 150,000 deaths and 4 million displaced people in the 1990s."

Serb media routinely refer to it as an "anthem for all Serbs," and it has gradually made its way into official events. It was also played at Belgrade's joyous welcome in September for fresh U.S. Open champ Djokovic and the national basketball team after its second-place finish at the FIBA World Cup.

The Kosovo Tennis Federation called it a further "provocation against Kosovo by Novak Djokovic and Serbian representative[s]" and vowed to complain to the ITF and the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

More than 100 countries recognize Kosovo's sovereignty, but Serbia, its ally Russia, and China do not.

Spain, the host of the final rounds of this year's Davis Cup, has grappled for centuries with independence movements in its northern Basque country and northeastern Catalonia community. It is one of five EU member states that do not recognize Kosovo's independence. Cyprus, Greece, Romania, and Slovakia are the others.

Although it is unclear whether the Serbian national team was ultimately behind Davis Cup and Spanish organizers playing the song, it is the latest in a string of incidents that hint at Djokovic's willingness to use his status to promote politically sensitive nationalist causes, including opposition to Kosovar independence.

"As a public figure, I feel the obligation to show support for our people and all of Serbia," Novak Djokovic has said.
"As a public figure, I feel the obligation to show support for our people and all of Serbia," Novak Djokovic has said.

After a victory at the French Open in May, he scribbled, "Kosovo is the [heart] of Serbia. Stop the violence," on a camera lens in a familiar Serb refrain that takes aim at Kosovo's right to independence. French Sports Minister Amelie Oudea-Castera called it an inappropriate action that was "militant and very political." At the time, Kosovar officials appealed unsuccessfully to international sports authorities for disciplinary action.

"I'm not a politician," Djokovic commented later, "but as a Serb, what's happening in Kosovo hurts me. Our people are expelled from the municipalities."

Djokovic was speaking days after Serb protesters clashed with NATO KFOR peacekeepers amid Kosovo's efforts, despite international warnings, to forcibly replace ethnic Serb mayors in mostly Serb areas with ethnic Albanian officials.

"This is the least I could do," Djokovic said. "As a public figure, I feel the obligation to show support for our people and all of Serbia. I think many people don't know what the future brings for Kosovo, but it is important to show harmony in situations like this."

More than three months later, one Kosovar police officer was killed in a confrontation with dozens of gunmen in northern Kosovo in which three of the attackers were also killed amid a daylong standoff. Djokovic drew criticism after he appeared to express sympathy for the attackers, who Pristina alleged were led by a Kosovar Serb politician with ties to Serbian officials, Milan Radoicic. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic later said Radoicic had confessed in Serbian custody to crimes in connection with the incident.

After he tweeted criticism of the Davis Cup for allowing "a nationalist song that calls for the Serbian annexation of Montenegro and Kosovo," prominent Montenegrin blogger Ljubomir Filipovic said he received "over 1,000 insults and death threats in just 24 hours."

He and other critics of the Davis Cup organizers, especially from Montenegro and Kosovo, also became the focus of right-wing media in Serbia that characterized criticism of the song as "outpourings of hate" and "ridiculous" accusations "from a fake country," among other things.

The tabloid Blic said there were "no words of hate, only love" in the lyrics of Rejoice, O Serbian Nation.

Written by Andy Heil based on reporting by Iva Martinovic

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