Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic is one of the all-time greats in his sport and was at the center of an exchange of statements between the governments of his home country and that of Australia. Current champion of the Australian Open, who won nine times, a record, he was expelled from Australia by the country’s sanitary rules. The expulsion almost generates a diplomatic crisis, but mainly a very convenient one.
Before we discuss the political issues, a brief summary of the facts. The tennis player entered Australia on January 5, without being vaccinated. Djokovic claims that since he tested positive for Covid-19 in mid-December, he met the tournament organization’s requirements, which required vaccination or a recent recovery from the infection. On the same day five he was arrested by the Australian police authorities for not presenting all the documents necessary for entry into the country.
Djokovic then had his visa canceled for not complying with Australian health rules, as he the recent infection allowed him to participate in the tournament, but not to enter the country. Immunity from recent infection would, in practice, only apply to Australian tennis players. The tennis player went to court and had his entry into the country authorized. The Australian government intervened and ordered the expulsion of the athlete, who appealed.
On the last day 16, the appeal was denied and the tennis player was expelled from Australia. Before leaving for Dubai, Djokovic said he was “extremely disappointed by the court in waiving my request for judicial review of the ministerial decision to cancel my visa, which means I cannot stay in Australia and participate in the Australian Open. I respect the court’s decision and will cooperate with the authorities regarding my departure from the country.”
The column said that the “ government interfered” and the tennis player regretted the “ministerial decision”. In addition to the judicial debate, the Australian government executive had two direct participations in the events, one of them decisive. As early as day five, Home Secretary Karen Andrews stated that, “regardless” of the tennis federation or the state government of Victoria, the federal government would still enforce the law that unvaccinated individuals “must provide acceptable proof that cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons.”
Decisive action came on 14 January, when Alex Hawke, Minister of Immigration and Citizenship, exercised its executive powers under Australian immigration law and canceled Djokovic’s visa, for “reasons of health and good order, on the basis that it is in the public interest to do so”. Hawke’s decision implies a “veto” of entry for three years, except in “exceptional circumstances”.
Prime Scott Morrison tried to be “diplomatic” and said that these are specific conditions of the pandemic, who trusts his government and that Djokovic will be welcome to the country when he can return, including the next edition of the tournament. What was seen as direct involvement of the Australian government was countered by the Serbian government, also on more than one occasion, by more than one person.
On the 6th, the president of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, said that Djokovic would be the target of “political persecution”, of conduct that “is not fair play”, “in which everyone participates, including the Prime Minister of Australia , pretending that the rules are valid for everyone”. Subsequently, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said that she thought “that the court’s decision is scandalous” and that she finds it “unbelievable that we have two completely contradictory court decisions in just a few days”.
After the final decision, Vucic was even more rigid. He stated that Djokovic “went to Australia on a medical clearance, then he was mistreated for eleven days, and in the end, you impose on him the decision that was made on the first day? Doing a witch hunt against him? This is something no one can understand.” He also criticized what he said was a distortion of Serbian health reality by the Australian prosecution.
Part of the Serbian sentiment stems from Djokovic’s national hero aura in the country. In addition to being an extremely successful sportsman, he has publicly spoken out on several sensitive points for the Serbian people, such as the independence of Kosovo. The athlete has a good relationship with film director Boris Malagurski, author of several documentaries critical of NATO, the US and the European Union, and their role in the end of Yugoslavia and in a “villainization” of Serbia.
Should Djokovic win yet another Grand Slam tournament, a term that encompasses the top four tennis tournaments, he would become the biggest winner in the history of men’s sport. He is currently tied with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. In other words, preventing him from playing, and eventually winning, another tournament would even be part of some plot to prevent the Serb from reaching that status.
On the other hand, part of the repudiation of the tennis player comes from the fact that he, more than once and publicly, questioned the vaccination against Covid-19, refusing to be vaccinated. When international tennis came to a halt due to the pandemic, he organized a charity tournament called the Adria Tour, which basically brought together athletes who questioned the impact of the pandemic or the need for vaccinations. The tournament became a reason for derision due to the high number of infections caused by it.
The point is that all that has been described is quite convenient for both governments. In international politics, interest is the rule. On the one hand, the Australian government defends its policy in the face of Covid, which is to use the fact that the country does not have land borders and focus case control on monitoring who enters the country. The decision to expel Djokovic also appeals to Australian public opinion.
While many Australians are unable to return to their country and see their family members, an unvaccinated athlete has entered the country to participate in an event in that only vaccinated people will be able to be in the stands was getting really bad. On the other hand, the Serbian government publicly supports the main name of the country today, linking its image to that of the tennis player who, again, is one of the greatest in history.
The tensions between the two governments are “ cockroaches” close to that. An already existing problem is the fact that Australia recognizes Kosovo as independent. Trade between the two countries is negligible, with an estimated total of less than US$ 30 million a year. Even the expressive Serbian community in Australia is formed mainly by people already born in Australia.
Mainly, the most frequent reader here in our space must remember that in the first columns of the year we addressed the elections to stay keeping an eye on 2022. And both Serbia in April and Australia in May will hold general elections. In other words, with months to go before national elections, hardly any government will give in or not be guided by what its public opinion expresses.
As much as discussions about ethics, individual rights and public welfare are essential , in addition to being interesting, the case of Djokovic also has facets that go beyond philosophy, laws or the pandemic. Much more prosaic facets, such as elections, government interests and image before the electorate. And, for the understanding of the situation, this cannot be lost sight of.