November 16, 2021 2:03 PM
“Croatia has never needed divine protection like it does today,” said pediatrician Nada Jurinčić from a stage in Zagreb’s Bana Jelačić square.
On 24 September, a massive demonstration brought people from all over the region to the central square of the Croatian capital. In the footage of the protest, people can be seen waving Croatian flags along with banners that read “nothing justifies this violence”. What violence are we talking about? Vaccines and public safety measures related to covid-19.
Jurinčić opened his speech with a nationalistic slogan. “God and the Croats!” (God and Croats!), he exclaimed before starting his speech, in which he defined public security measures as “crimes committed as part of a battle plan codenamed covid-19”, and stated that the pandemic is false. According to Jurinčić, the authors of this great fiction are the World Health Organization and the Communist Party of China.
The speech ended with the words “we are at war!”. The speech garnered over ninety thousand views on YouTube, and many more when you consider other platforms.
The demonstration was called the “Festival of freedom” and was organized by the Rights and Freedom initiative (Prava i slobode), founded in 2020 in response to measures to combat covid-19 in Croatia. Similar events take place in other countries of the region. Some, such as those in Slovenia, have resulted in violence.
Like a temple
Aleksej Kišjuhas, a Serbian sociologist, describes those who oppose vaccines in the region as “individuals from a relatively conservative background”. And he explains: “They see vaccines as a kind of unnatural or dirty intervention by companies and the liberal powers of the world, while they see their body as a temple.”
The Balkan region has one of the lowest covid-19 vaccination rates in Europe. Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia are around 40 to 50 percent; Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo between 30 and 40 percent; Albania is almost at 30 per cent, while Bosnia and Herzegovina has not even reached 20 per cent.
Although Facebook and other social networking platforms have fiercely and publicly modified their content moderation strategy to reduce misinformation about covid-19, an internal Facebook report recently leaked that “our ability to detect comments containing hesitation about vaccines are scarce in English and practically non-existent in other languages ”. Throughout the region, anti-vaccine ideas and conspiracy theories about covid-19 find fertile ground on social networks and are rarely sanctioned or moderated.
One of the environments in which these ideas are spread is the YouTube channel Bujica, which has over fifty thousand subscribers. The channel’s animator, Velimir Bujanec, is a Croatian far-right public figure with a criminal record for possessing cocaine and paying for sex with drugs. He was also photographed in the 1990s wearing a Nazi uniform.
Bujanec interviewed Nada Jurinčić in one of her episodes. The claims made on that occasion were then checked by the Croatian website Faktograf, which revealed numerous falsehoods. But, as is often the case, the verification article had far fewer views than the two hundred thousand obtained by the one with the original, and false, claims.
Another popular figure among vaccine opponents in the region is Semir Osmanagić, a Bosnian “spiritual researcher” who claims that the Mayans are descended from an alien race from outer space and that Hitler fled to an underground base in Antarctica after the second World War. Osmanagić was filmed during the Zagreb demonstration, as he made a parallel between the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany and the measures against covid-19. The idea that people opposed to the vaccine are the equivalent of Jews in Nazi Germany is a widespread image in international no vax rhetoric.
Osmanagić recently turned his social network channels into sources of disinformation about covid-19 and vaccines, with reports that the alleged Visoko pyramids, in mountain formations near Sarajevo, have curative effects against the virus. His claims have been reinforced by high-profile visits from some celebrities such as vaccine skeptic tennis star Novak Djoković who went to Visoko in the fall of 2020, attracting more attention and tourists to the resort and across the country. Bosnia, where the measures against covid 19 are applied more weakly.
Bosnia has the lowest covid-19 vaccination rate in Europe and one of the highest death rates from the virus in the world.
Two of the most popular conspiracy theories concern the alleged microchips in vaccines and the idea that these have a negative effect on fertility.
Perhaps the most extreme anti-vaccine movement in the region is in Slovenia, where there were violent demonstrations earlier this year. The main reason for the protest was the death of a 20-year-old girl who died of a brain hemorrhage that was allegedly caused by the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. About ten thousand people gathered in Ljubljana, where they marched into the city center, blocking some motorway exits.
The government responded with severe restrictions on the right to demonstrate publicly. In view of the summit between the European Union and the Western Balkans, the government activated Article 9 of the law on the tasks and powers of the police for the first time in history, limiting the movement of the population in public spaces. When the anti-vaccine protesters rallied despite the restrictions, police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse them.
Despite a late start, Kosovo has recently caught up in the vaccination rate compared to neighboring countries. The vaccination campaign began in late March, when Prime Minister Albin Kurti publicly received the first dose of AstraZeneca. Despite the country’s recent vaccine successes, conspiracy theories and protests against vaccines are also spreading in Kosovo. One of the leading figures of the Kosovar no vax world on the net is Arianit Sllamniku, a German teacher.
“My family and I started to protest because we disagreed with the government’s decision to open gyms and cafes but to keep schools closed,” says Sllamniku, who mobilized in September and has led three protests since. , none of which saw large audience participation.
“Through my Facebook post about the demonstrations in Pristina, people started showing their support and joining us,” he says.
Together with like-minded people, Sllamiku created a Facebook group called Free Citizen, Qytetari i Lirë in Albanian, which has over six hundred participants. Facebook recently blocked Sllamniku for ten days for posting vaccines that violate the platform’s disinformation rules.
Difficulty in management
Kosovan journalist Valjeta Kosumi sees a huge problem in the network: “Social networks have an important role in fueling conspiracy theories on vaccines and in people’s decisions not to get vaccinated,” says Kosumi. According to her, two of the most popular conspiracy theories involve the alleged microchips in vaccines and the idea that these have a negative effect on fertility. These are arguments that he has often seen in the comments section of the news posted daily on social networks.
YouTube recently announced that it would remove videos and channels associated with anti-vaccine content, but Facebook’s difficulties in handling non-English web content raises questions about the effects of this decision in the region.
After being blocked a few times, Sllamniku began to consider other social networking platforms. “Telegram is one of the alternative platforms that doesn’t have the same restrictions as Facebook and Twitter,” he explains.
Zoran Stevanović, one of the main organizers of the Ljubljana protests, instead of turning to Telegram formed a new party called Resnica, which means “the truth”. Stevanović is a former policeman, businessman and exponent of the Slovenian National Party, a far-right nationalist group.
“We have been governed by the same project for thirty years, a destructive policy of corruption and false divisions that separates the peoples,” he argues. Stevanović called the pandemic “a criminal project” and was arrested twice for inciting violence. This did not prevent him from obtaining a meeting with Slovenian President Borut Pahor, to whom he made some provocative requests. Pahor quickly put an end to their meeting.
Stevanović was recently photographed in the company of Ivan Vilibor Sinčić, Croatian exponent of the European parliament and great enemy of vaccines. The Croatian and Slovenian no vaxes collaborated with each other, a fact evident also on social networks. Many Slovenian anti-vaccine groups regularly add Serbo-Croatian subtitles to their content, and messages of support from all over the region can be read in the comments section.
Print in the viewfinder
It is not just vaccine manufacturers, China and the World Health Organization that are on the list of the main enemies of those who oppose vaccines. Many have also targeted the media. “The main newspapers of the regime are blocking us, or they speak badly of us”, complained Stevanović.
Damjana Bakarič, a former journalist in Slovenia and now a “researcher in human psychology, emotions and soul”, urges people not to follow the traditional media. “We have had enough of this bullying and the negative energy produced by the newspapers,” he says, adding that “the blame for the pandemic lies with the global predatory elite.”
During the protests in Ljubljana, protesters stormed the state broadcaster and many journalists reported being attacked. In response, the Slovenian Journalists’ Association issued a statement stating: “We ask everyone to respect the work of journalists on the ground and not to threaten them”.
The media were also the target of the protests in Zagreb, where Anita Šupe, a member of the Rights and Freedom association, obscurely proclaimed that “the traditional press is hiding the truth, reversing the facts and intimidating us. It keeps people in ignorance and fear in order to manipulate them “.
“The anti-vaccine movement is not organized and unified, but it is a widespread and heterogeneous ideology that is spreading like wildfire, because it affects where people are weakest: in emotions”, explains Serbian doctor Srđan Lukić, who has often expressed his concerns about the movement in the region.
According to Aleksej Kišjuhas, there are many different reasons why people join the anti-vaccine movements. His idea is also confirmed by research.
“Some people are uninformed or misinformed,” says Kišjuhas. “Some are afraid of side effects or needles, others don’t trust the health system or the government. And then there are those who truly believe in conspiracy theories, microchips or the mafia of pharmaceutical companies “.
He believes that identity and community building processes are essential to understanding how anti-vaccine groups are formed and strengthened. “People often build opinions because they are influenced by respected individuals or people they trust in personal social networks,” he concludes. “If these individuals are no vax, they will make a lot of vaccines questionable.”
(Translation by Federico Ferrone)
This article was published in Kosovo 2.0 magazine.