Violence against minorities begins with speech. Insults and hate speech can quickly escalate into physical harm. Experts on the Balkans have warned against the trivialization of hate speech.
For fans of the Croatian soccer team Dinamo Zagreb, former club boss Zdravko Mamic is the ultimate hate figure. The club's ultra-fanatical supporters, who call themselves the Bad Blue Boys, hate him with all their hearts. They accuse him of taking over the club, running it as a family firm and using it as his own private money-making machine.
Their hatred of him can be seen in the local graffiti. Slogans like "Mamic, you monkey!" or "Mamic, you fag!" or even "Mamic, you gypsy!" are commonplace. And sometimes, even these insults are not enough. Zagreb's ultras have been known to spray slogans like "Mamic, you Serb!" on the sides of buildings.
Return to reality
Such hate speech is nothing new, says Cvijeta Senta, an activist with the Center for Peace Studies in Zagreb. Sexist, racist and nationalist slurs and insults have long been part of everyday life in the latest state to join the EU. At one time, it used to be that such speech was only used in private.
"What's new is what has happened with such speech in the public arena," said Senta. She says that a barrier has been broken. "Today, there seems to be no inhibition to heaping hateful, denigrating speech on political opponents and people who think differently," Senta said.
Brazilian footballer Everton Luiz was racially abused while playing in a match for Partizan Belgrade
It's not just Croatia that is dealing with a rise in hate speech. The kind of discrimination that is so strongly present across the whole Western Balkans is now part of public life. At a recent soccer match between Belgrade city rivals Partizan and Rad, the dark-skinned Brazilian Partizan player Everton Luiz was subjected to 90 minutes of racist abuse. When the match ended, the 28-year-old left the pitch in tears. Barely anyone was surprised by it. Partizan coach Marko Nikolic expressed his frustration after the match, saying: "This is a return to the reality of Serbian soccer."
The phenomenon is also not relegated to the soccer scene. Oscar-winning actor Jamie Foxx, currently shooting a new Robin Hood movie in Dubrovnik, Croatia, was recently subjected to racial slurs by two men while dining at a restaurant.
Johanna Deimel of the Munich-based Southeast Europe Association says there's been a strong rise in incidents of hate speech in Western Balkan countries. "Despite closer ties to the EU and the implementation of democratic principles, these countries have not come very far," she said. Frustration over the dwindling prospect of EU membership and poor economic conditions are causing increased social tension.
According to Deimel, this development fits with the European-wide trend. Far-right populist parties are jeopardizing liberal democracies in other EU countries such as France, Hungary, Poland and the Netherlands. Nationalism is on the rise, and slogans about the "decadent West" are making the rounds. "These kinds of views are resonating with people in the Western Balkans," Deimel said.
Hate being trivialized
Deimel says she is especially concerned with the open insults and slurs against ethnic minorities in the region. Talk of war and of the borders that ought to be shifted is also back. "This is very dangerous," Deimel said, adding that "war doesn't just happen, there is always a preparation phase, in speech as well."
Peace activist Senta says state institutions are partly to blame for this development. Hate speech and hate crimes are designated as punishable crimes under the law, but in reality, such crimes are often trivialized and ignored. On the one hand, this results in the people who are attacked feeling threatened and unwelcome, and on the other, it encourages violent behavior, she said. "If you denigrate someone as a Serb or a gypsy and declare that this person is not welcome, it will not be long before someone tries to physically take action against these people," Senta said.
Several non-governmental organizations in the region are working to counteract such hate crimes. They document incidents of hate speech and inform the authorities. But they're often marginalized, or targeted themselves. "People who take a stand against hate crimes often receive little or no support, or are defamed themselves," said Deimel.
Activist Senta says that dwindling prospects of EU accession is having a negative effect on Western Balkan countries. "Without this control from outside, the pressure to behave differently is gone," she said. Below the surface of a cultivated society, the ugly face of sexism and racism is once again emerging.