Milorad Dodik, the president of Bosnia & Herzegovina’s Republika Srpska, sparked a political storm when he used a racial slur when referring to the family of Serbian tennis champion Novak Djokovic.
The row pits Dodik, who has repeatedly said he wants Republika Srpska to secede from Bosnia and join Serbia, against the much-admired Serbian sporting hero and has sparked intense debate on social media.
“Those Djokovics are some hard motherf****rs … Our people experience it emotionally, but when you get into business … [They’re] as tight as gypsies,” Dodik said in the recording. In the region, comparing someone to a gypsy is a derogatory way of calling them miserly.
The politician made the comment just days after he warmly welcomed Djokovic to the Srpska Open tournament in the entity’s capital, Banja Luka.
Dodik made the comment in an informal conversation with journalist Gradimir Papic ahead of an appearance on Serbian state channel RTS. However, a recording of the conversation was published by opposition Republika Srpska MP Nebojca Vukanovic.
Vukanovic criticised Dodik for his remarks, and suggested that the incident would discourage Djokovic from visiting Banja Luka in future.
”It seems that we wasted BAM50mn [€25mn] on the Srpska Open tennis tournament and the arrival of Novak Djokovic in Banja Luka because Milorad Dodik insulted Djokovic so hard tonight that I believe he will not come to Banja Luka or Republika Srpska for a long time,” he wrote.
He also called Dodik out for hypocrisy. “While Novak Djokovic and his family were in Banja Luka, Dodik wouldn’t leave them alone and when the tournament ended, it turned out that not everything was as the cameras of the regime media wanted to show,” he said, according to N1.
Dodik has apologised to the Djokovics for his comments, saying that he respected and appreciated the success of Novak Djokovic and his family. He also criticised the RTS for “unprofessional conduct” in allowing the recording to be published.
“I’d like to thank RTS for my sleepless night. I can’t believe they did this in such a heinous way. As a sincere admirer of Novak Djokovic both as a tennis player and as a man, I wish him and his family all the luck. Success in everything to Srdjan and Djordje [Novak Djokovic’s father and brother],” said Dodik.
However, Dodik’s apology only sparked further criticism, and calls for him to apologise to the Roma people rather than to the Djokovics.
“Even if the aired recording was a “technical error”, Dodik's discriminative comments towards Roma were certainly not, and apologies should be issued to the Roma community,” wrote Goran Miletic, director for Europe and MENA at Civil Rights Defenders, on Twitter.
RTS, meanwhile, said that the recording had been made illegally and called on the Serbian Interior Ministry and Security Intelligence Agency (BIA) to launch an investigation.
The broadcaster claimed that the recording was released due to a “technical error”, and that it had not intended for the conversation to be made public.
Dodik, sanctioned by the US and an open admirer of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has radicalised his secessionist rhetoric since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The entity has taken several steps in this direction recently. Earlier this week, the parliament of Republika Srpska ordered its four judges to quit the state-level constitutional court, claiming the institution is acting against the constitution. This will bring the entity closer to secession if implemented and could lead to a new spike of political tensions in the already highly unstable country.
Banja Luka is also in conflict with the state-level authorities over the ownership of state property. Meanwhile, the international community has criticised planned legislation aimed at banning access to kindergartens, schools and universities for LGBT activists, as well as a law on “foreign agents” similar to those in Georgia and Russia.