Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic’s use of a derogatory phrase to describe Kosovo’s leadership has not only ignited a diplomatic row in the Balkans; it has set social media ablaze as well.
Tensions were already high between the neighbors this week when Kosovar police raided Serb-dominated northern areas on May 28 and arrested several people, mainly police officers, along with two UN personnel, one of them Russian.
The following day, Brnabic referred to Kosovo’s leaders as people who “literally came out of the woods,” a comment that some Kosovars, including Foreign Minister Behgjet Pacolli, called racist.
The war of words spilled over into social media, where hashtags such as #literallyjustemergedfromthewoods, #Dialogue, and #RacistStatementsBySerbianPM prompted comments showing how deep the animosity between the two countries runs.
“There was no mistake. You are forest people,” screamed one Twitter user at Kosovo’s ambassador to the United States, Vlora Citaku, after she posted a tongue-and-cheek picture of herself at the edge of a forest.
“Me too, also literally,” replied Majlinda Cullhaj, secretary-general of the Austrian-Albanian Society, who posted a similar picture of herself emerging from a forest in a tweet.
Animosity between Serbia and Kosovo has simmered, and sometimes boiled over, since the two fought a bloody conflict in the late 1990s that ended after NATO air strikes forced Belgrade to withdraw its troops from the territory.
The former Serbian province declared independence in 2008 and has been recognized by more than 110 countries, but not by Serbia, which sees areas of Kosovo as the cradle of the Serbian Orthodox Church.
Some of the debate, a lot of which is strewn with inflammatory and crude language, raged on about whether Brnabic meant to demean ethnic Albanians in Kosovo with her statement.
Speaking to reporters in Belgrade on May 29, Brnabic said, “My fear is that we have to deal with the worst type of populists, with people who literally came out of the woods,” referring to Kosovar leaders.
“Some of them are terrorists” who committed atrocities during Kosovo’s 1998-99 war, she asserted, without giving details to support the claim.
On May 30, Brnabic did not apologize or clarify her comments, noting only that “people who are willing to stop the flow of goods are ready to stop the freedom of movement,” a reference to Kosovo’s decision late last year to implement a 100 percent tariff on goods from Serbia.
“It’s taken out of context as Serbian PM was thinking of Kosovo policemen who were in KLA which were fighting as guerillas ‘from the woods.’ But nevertheless, you are playing this game very good,” said one Twitter user.
Another took a more philosophical tone, noting that this isn’t the first time the phrase has been used.
“Although I as a Kosovar am not a fan of our own leaders, the connotation used by @SerbianPM has been previously used by young Serb artists who mocked at Kosovar refugees by saying ‘they just liked taking a picnic in the woods’. It is a known term. Funny & racist at the same time,” the user said.
In the end, one Twitter user may have summed up the feeling among many in the region.
“So, I #literallyjustemergedfromthewoods but I am contemplating about heading back again. ‘Civilization’ seems overrated,” the user wrote.