HATE SPEECH IN THE WESTERN BALKANS: July Monthly Highlights

Throughout the month of July, the RDN monitoring team has detected a range of hateful narratives and discourse. As we enter the tourist holiday season, there has been a rise in hateful narratives directed towards various ethnic groups including high levels of ethnic discrimination and racism across all six Western Balkan states.

Tourism and the rise of ethnic discrimination

During the peak of tourism season, there has been a rise in cases of hate speech in the Western Balkans in relation to tourists from the region who travel within the region. Such incidents of hate speech helps to uphold negative stereotypes and disinformation.

Luxury resort Aman Sveti Stefan used to be known for its exclusive seaside for elite tourists nevertheless, this year its beaches have now been opened up to the public.

An author of an article that was published on the infoportal, aktuelno.me displayed strong ethnic hatred towards tourists from Serbia and the Republika Srpska (BiH), by using strong ethnic narratives and derogatory terminology to refer to them as “tomato tourists” and “wandering cattle”. Such narratives and negative group labelling increase tension and hatred amongst ethnic groups within Montenegro.

The author of the article goes as far as to accuse tourists from Serbia and Republika Srpska (BiH) of leaving their excrement on Montenegrin breaches – another example of negative narratives being created to stigmatise tourists of Serbian ethnic origin.

Furthermore, the author mocks the statement of the Montenegrin Deputy Prime Minister – Dritan Abazovic- who claimed that this tourist season could indeed be a record number of tourists.

Such articles promote ethnic hatred and uphold stereotypes and hostility between various ethnic communities.

Similarly, in Albania there has been a rise in ethnic discrimination towards Serb tourists in the month of July. An article recently published by Al Jazeera Balkans blog which highlighted the love of Serbians to spend their summer holidays in Albania was picked up by Shqiptarja.com newspaper and posted on Facebook with the title ‘here’s how Serbs fell in love with Albania!’ The Al Jazeera article itself looked at the areas and countries that attract most Serbian tourists and Albania was one of them.

Although the Facebook post itself does not include any hate speech, a comment made by an online account on Facebook included highly insulting, denigrating, and humiliating statements towards Serbs. This individual commented under the article: “a very beautiful thing. After we were killed and our sisters raped in Kosovo, we now have to see them face to face on the beaches, at a time that Croatia doesn’t want to look at them at all”. Not only is this comment highly insulting and problematic as it promotes a further division between Albanians and Serbs on the basis of linking the present day to the past conflict between Kosovan’s and Serbs during the fall of Yugoslavia, but it also further promotes hate speech and xenophobia towards the Serbian population. Such comments uphold ethnic discrimination within the region and lead to further hostility between both ethnic groups.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the film director Nejra Latic Hulusic who wanted to swim in a burkini in the public swimming pool in Tuzla was denied entrance. She was asked to leave the pool as she was told that she could not swim dressed. As a result, Hulusic took to social media to express her shock and anger which led to the pool manager’s son writing a post on Facebook – “I am sick of these ‘new believers’ who fight for religious rights and freedoms in a country where religious communities have the status of the deity itself and which manage all processes in society such as Bosnia and Herzegovina”.

This comment is highly problematic due to its ethnic, racial, and religious discrimination rhetoric. By banning Hulusic entrance into a public space based on her religion and private belief shows prejudice and intolerance towards people of various ethno-religious backgrounds. Furthermore, by making such swooping comments on social media, further undermines the seriousness of the situation and downplays the level of religious discrimination, which only further upholds such hateful narratives.

Ethnic prejudice and hostility in Kosovo

The info portal kosovapress, published an article about a recent case of water poisoning in the Decan region where over 1,500 citizens have sought medical help. While it was still not clear if the cause of the poisoning was water, Naim Muçaj, the owner of a restaurant which is located approximately 500 meters away from the water well, stated that a few days before the first cases appeared two young people in a white SUV with Serbian, Novi Sad, license plates visited his restaurant and had asked him about the road leading to the Deçan monastery. “[T]hey came out of their car, with a car registration from Novi Sad, they entered like gangsters…they looked suspicious to me,” the owner commented.

The first cases of poisoning were recorded two days later, prompting the restaurant owner to raise suspicions about the possible involvement of two young men from Novi Sad in the alleged water poisoning. The owner of the restaurant informed the police about the conversation with the two young men, after which he handed over the camera recordings. Investigations have been carried out, while the Basic Prosecution in Peja has issued a statement following the information received about the visit of two persons of Serbian nationality moving towards the Monastery of Deçan. With the authorization of the Chief Prosecutor in Peja and in coordination with the intelligence agency and Regional Directorate of police in Peja, they have taken appropriate steps and the two individuals have been identified. Furthermore, in the recent communique of the Basic Prosecution in Peja, it was confirmed that further steps would be taken if the possible connection between the two individuals and the incident itself were to be confirmed.

Naim Mucaj’s statement was then reported by almost every media in Kosovo, without basic journalistic job to check data was done, thus further spreading stereotypes based on prejudice and accusations. This incident is a clear example of ethnic discrimination and xenophobia by making a connection between two young men who visited the area a few days prior to the water poisoning. By making a clear emphasis that the two individuals came from Serbia, and yet holding no substantial evidence linking them to the incident, this only further maintains hostility between the Kosovo and Serbian population.

Ethnic hatred towards the Roma community in North Macedonia

In an article on sdk.mk info portal, the headline read “we will deport beggars, they come to Struga to make money and are a nuisance to tourists, says Mayor Merko”.

The Mayor of the city of Struga, Ramiz Merko made denigrating comments towards people who beg within the city especially during summer to which the Mayor responded by claiming that he aims to take measures. He went on to call them “boring” and a “nuisance” to tourists and people who are trying to eat lunch in the city but keep being interrupted. He furthermore, added that he plans to deport these beggars even if that meant separating them from their children. He was quoted saying:  

“we determined where to hold them for 24 hours. Of course, we’re unable to do this with the children due to the Law, but we can and will deport the parents to wherever they came from, to reduce the numbers of beggars in Struga”.

He also encouraged people not to give money to beggars so as to not motivate them to return.

In context, beggars across Macedonia often belong to the Roma community. Such comments made in public media can further lead to ethnic discrimination and hatred towards the Roma community. When public officials with a wide audience make such derogatory comments hateful narratives are only further upheld.

Following the incident, The European Centre for Roma Rights submitted a complaint against Ramiz Merko’s statements on the ‘grounds of ethnicity, race and skin color, belonging to a social group, property statues or belonging to a marginalised group’. Despite this, Ramiz Merko defended his statement by adding that the media misinterpreted his words as he did not mean to make any discriminatory statements. Nevertheless, Merko submitted a letter to the Ombudsman of Macedonia in which he states that he ‘regrets if his statement led to a situation where someone in a group or community has to file a complaint and apologises if he offended someone with his statement’.

Overall, the Ombudsman closed the case due to the fact that Merko made an apology and has not followed up with action of deportation of the beggars in Struga. Nevertheless, the media, by such reporting on this issue, have contributed to reinforcing stereotypes against Roma and socially deprived people.

Strong nationalism and ethnic narratives in Serbia

At the anniversary of the Movement of Socialists, the Minister of Internal Affairs, Aleksandar Vulin, spread strong narratives of ethnic discrimination, xenophobia and racism towards people who are not Serbs within the region. Vulin made a comment during his public address regarding the task of this generation of politicians which was quote “to create a Serbian world, to unite Serbs wherever they live”.

He also added that

“because the people who have the experience of the Jasenovac genocide, who have the experience of the operation Storm (Oluja), and who have experience of the March pogrom (Martovski pogrom), have no right to hand over their destiny to others, or be given names by others, to be determined by others (..). they have no right to give up integration and unification, they have no right to give up the Serbian world. And for the Serbian world to emerge, Serbia must be economically successful, well-led to have an army capable of preserving both Serbia and the Serbs wherever they live. In order to preserve such Serbia, we must do everything to continue the policy of Aleksandar Vučić. Only that; only that is victory; only that is a guarantee of the survival of our people and nothing else”.

Such strong nationalist narratives, could lead to the further marginalization of individuals of various backgrounds living in the country.

Such narratives are not only dangerous as they raise tensions and are reminiscent of  the events which took place during the conflict of 1990s, they also undermine the identity of individuals living within Serbia who may be of various ethno-religious backgrounds.

These comments can, furthermore, come across as insensitive and upsetting to those who fell victims to the crimes which took place during the conflict. They further create hostility and tension amongst various communities within the country by recalling moments in history where many people lost their loved ones.

This speech was broadcast on national television RTS and was thereon, shared by all the media further promoting such strong ethnic, nationalistic narratives.