EuroPride in Belgrade—marching towards equality, against all odds
As part of our democracy work, we want to bring the voices of the Western Balkan region into the Finnish and European debate. In this article, Predrag Tripković goes through the stages of preparations of the EuroPride event in Belgrade, which almost did not take place, and highlights the challenges experienced by LGBTQI+ minorities in Serbia.
EuroPride is a pan-European International LGBTQI+ event that is organized every year by a different European city. In the week from September 12 to September 18, the first EuroPride in the Western Balkans was held in Serbia. Followed by various controversies, possible bans, and security threats, Pride week took place with several incidents and regardless of great pressure, it was held following a slightly amended initial plan of the event.
Local frontliners of human rights, international guests and supporters, as well as participants, contributed to the fact that the rule of law in Serbia was eventually upheld. Their efforts and fight for equality have once again defeated the voices of bigotry and intolerance.
In addition to the Pride parade, numerous exhibitions, film screenings, debates, and conferences were organized throughout Belgrade, including the International Human Rights Conference, which took place from September 13 to 16. The conference dealt with topics such as legislation, Western support for marginalized groups in the Eastern Europe, support for the Ukrainian queer minority, and mechanisms for continuing the fight against homophobia and transphobia.
Pride Walk on Saturday 17 September
After a Pride week with no major incidents, thousands of participants were preparing for the walk, scheduled for September 17. The organization of the walk was the main topic of the Serbian media in the previous weeks, after attempts of the Serbian Orthodox Church and right-wing groups and politicians, and even the Serbian government itself, to have it cancelled. Fortunately, their efforts did not bear fruit, but the safety of the participants was still uncertain.
Before the actual walk, riots and incidents caused by opponents of Pride took place in the city. One instance is an excommunicated monk who was arrested after throwing a water bottle at a journalist. There was also a scuffle between the hooligans and the police, and tear gas was thrown by the police. More than thirty people who tried to create a disturbance in the city were arrested.
The walk was successfully completed that evening on an altered route that was a few hundred meters long, followed by an entertaining program with local artists. Numerous European officials and guests from abroad took part in the walk, and regardless of all the difficulties that preceded it, love and equality prevailed.
It was afterwards reported that dozen participants were attacked after and before the actual walk and that they were mostly of foreign origin – specifically from Albania and Germany. Some of the attacked victims received emergency health care after the attack, and the police ensured that the attackers would be found. Around thirty more people were arrested by the end of the day due to disruption of public order and peace and attacks on officials.
Right-wing and clerical resistance – Events leading up to the EuroPride Week
About a month before the event, the councilors of extremist right-wing party Dveri and the Movement for the Restoration of the Kingdom of Serbia submitted a request for the cancellation of EuroPride to the mayor of Belgrade, Aleksandar Šapić.
They stated in their letter that EuroPride ”was a disgraceful event of high risk to national security due to the opposition of almost 97 percent of the citizens of Belgrade and Serbia who share family and traditional values”. They argued their concerns by mentioning the number of people affected by Covid-19 at the time, the fatal event that happened at Oslo Pride this year, and the alleged huge costs of the event, which, as they stated, amounted to around 40 million euros. The latter concern was later refuted by Katarina Garina, the President of the European Pride Organisers Association which licenses EuroPride, who stated that the event cost just a fraction of the suggested amount, with no funds provided by the government.
Shortly after the request had been handed in, a protest walk was organized by the informal association ”For the Defense of the Family”, which was attended by thousands of residents and members and representatives of the Serbian Orthodox Church. In addition to this Boško Obradović, the leader of the Dveri party, organized Family Walks, which fight for ’’the protection of moral and family values” and against ‘’the promotion of homosexualism”. Some sources state that the protest walks were directly supported by the Russian military intelligence agency GRU, since the Serbian fraction of this association was present at the walks.
Three weeks before the event Boško Obradović and the President of the Executive Committee of the Upright Serbia Saša Varinac submitted another request to ban EuroPride, this time to the Government of Serbia, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Police Chief and Belgrade’s Police Department.
In the week leading up to Pride Week, some officials of the ruling SNS party, officials of right-wing parties, representatives of the Serbian Orthodox Church, and informal traditionalist groups kept insisting on canceling EuroPride. All the above-mentioned made statements that were blatantly homophobic and relied on the trope of threatening family and traditional values and imposing Western values ”where they don’t belong”.
Among others, Bishop Nikanor of Banat stated that he would ‘’use weapons if he had some’’, which violated the Law on Prohibition of Discrimination and prompted the Commissioner for the Protection of Equality to react. A less hostile but similarly homophobic statement was made by the patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Porfirije, which gained a lot of media attention. The public and the media who opposed Pride used his statements as the main point of reference for opposing Pride, even though Serbia is constitutionally regulated as a secular state.
Issues on Kosovo and Pride – media spins and efforts to cancel the main event
On the same day, Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign policy and security, announced on Twitter that Belgrade and Prishtina had reached an agreement, with Serbia agreeing to abolish entry/exit documents for those with Kosovo identity documents, and Kosovo agreed not to introduce them for those who have Serbian identity documents. This step could be perceived as a step in accepting Kosovo as an independent state by Belgrade, taking into account that the problem with entry and identity documents has been one of the biggest issues in the context of Kosovo’s independence in the last few years.
The next day, Aleksandar Vučić stated that EuroPride would be canceled or postponed, using the situation in Kosovo as the main argument for canceling the event. On the same occasion, Vučić stated that it is clear to him that this act threatens the rights of minorities, but that the current situation in the country is so difficult that it would be inappropriate to have the event take place.
The Government of Serbia addressed the media with the same arguments, also stating that the security risk at the moment is high, as well as that it is possible that extremist groups would use the opportunity to make incidents at Pride. The question arises, whether these assumptions came from reliable sources, and if so, why could the state and the police not trace the groups that could potentially create an incident during the walk. This scenario was, however, not addressed.
Pride coordinator Goran Miletić responded by saying that events during EuroPride week cannot be banned and that the only thing possible to ban is the walk. Such a decision, bearing in mind the decisions of the Constitutional Court of Serbia to ban the walks on previous occasions, would be unconstitutional and they would appeal it. Kristine Garina, president of EuroPride, added that the European Court of Human Rights has declared the right to hold Pride as a fundamental human right, and any attempt to ban it is a violation of Articles 11, 13, and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which Serbia has ratified as a member of the Council of Europe.
In addition, it was assessed that the cancellation of EuroPride would be a step backward in the context of the negotiations for the candidacy for the European Union. According to the Negotiating Framework, Chapter 23 which concerns the rule of law, is one of the most important ones, and no progress in this chapter would slow down further negotiations.
Many political analysts, representatives of the opposition parties, and the organizers of Pride stated that the decision to cancel Pride was an opportunity for the Government of Serbia and Aleksandar Vučić to divert attention from the events taking place in Kosovo.
For years, Serbia has been fighting for a greater representation of independent media since tabloids and regime-leaning media occupy the majority of the media space. At the time of Vučić’s decision, all the pro-regime media were largely focused on Pride, thereby diverting attention from the events in Kosovo and the general unenviable economic situation in the country.
On top of that, social media served as a supporting platform for spreading discriminatory narratives, disseminating misinformation about the LGBTQI+ community, and mobilizing individuals with ultra-right and nationalist views in the fight against EuroPride.
In the following days, HRW, the UN mission in Serbia, other foreign diplomatic institutions in Serbia, including the Finnish embassy and nineteen other embassies, as well as members of the European Parliament, sent their public support to the organizers of Pride, pointing out the utmost importance of holding the Pride walk on Saturday, 17th of September.
Pride Week was then opened without incidents on September 12. The opening of EuroPride was not attended by any high-ranking officials of Serbia, including the previously mentioned mayor Aleksandar Šapić, which was also noted during the speech of Marko Mihajlović, the head of Belgrade Pride.
On the day of the walk, it was announced that the Ministry of Internal Affairs approved the walk with the newly proposed route. One could argue that the Ministry waited for the last moment to give the green light to the walk in order to avoid possible incidents, but also so that the media and informal groups on social media would not start a smear campaign against the government too much ahead.
Serbia’s current government has also previously been known to strategically orchestrate their actions, or in more realistic terms postpone possible escalations, with regard to topics of public importance.
The History of Pride Parades in Belgrade – Tortuous Path to Equality
On September 30, 2001, local activists and human rights frontliners made a courageous attempt to organize a national Pride march in the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. This event was the first ever Pride march organized on the territory of today’s Serbia and the entire region. It resulted in an attack by a group of hooligans and supporters of right-wing organizations, as well as a priest of the Serbian Orthodox Church.
According to the estimates of the Pride organizers, more than forty people were injured during this event, as a consequence of insufficient police force on hand. The number of injured individuals, however, did not correlate to the one estimated by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which was, unsurprisingly, lower.
Three years later, further efforts were put into organizing another Pride Parade in Belgrade, which yielded no results due to safety reasons after the burning of mosques in Niš and Belgrade in March of the same year.
The second scheduled Pride parade was supposed to take place on the 20th of September in 2009. After the significant media attention that the LGBTIQ+ population received when the Law on Prohibition of Discrimination was removed from the parliamentary procedure at the request of the Serbian Orthodox Church and other religious communities in the country, attention was focused on the announcement of the Pride parade in Belgrade.
After numerous public threats the Pride parade was relocated to another, in the opinion of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, safer place the day before the event. This decision was assessed by the organizers as ”the capitulation of the state to the threats of violence”, having the parade subsequently be canceled.
The next parade was finally held on October 10, 2010, with more than 1,000 participants. The safety of the participants, including diplomatic representatives, was guaranteed by the police force, which was deployed in large numbers around the venue of the walk. Nevertheless, 6,500 hooligans caused riots in Belgrade, during which 132 policemen and 25 citizens were injured, leading to 249 people being arrested.
Although this parade was accompanied by numerous incidents and riots, it was the first time in ten years that the parade was held. It was considered a big step forward that foreshadowed a more democratic path for the LGBTQI+ minority in Serbia.
After this, the next parade was held in 2014. 7,000 policemen armed to break up demonstrations and possible attacks defended the event. As a result of plentiful weapons and defense, there were no major incidents.
Since then, Pride has taken place every year without major incidents. The number of participants has increased throughout the years, having the number triple in the year 2021 in relation to 2010. Nonetheless, Pride events and walks are still being escorted by a large number of police force and security, as the threat of possible incidents is still present.
In 2017, Pride was attended by the newly appointed Prime Minister Ana Brnabić, which marked the first time that the Prime Minister attended a Pride event in the region. Brnabić is herself an openly LGBTQI+ individual. She was, however, noticeably absent the last two years, as her relations with the community and the organizers are considered to be somewhat strained due to a lack of effort on her side to provide better support to the community pertaining to same-sex legislation and other issues that the community faces.
A week after the successfully held Pride in 2019, the European Association of Pride organizers decided by a majority vote that Belgrade will be the capital of EuroPride in 2022. This decision was a vital and historic moment for the community in the Western Balkans, as it marked the first time that such an event would take place in the region and outside of EEA. It was also an opportunity for the rest of Europe and the world to become more cognizant of the struggles that the LGBTQI+ community faces in this region and Serbia, and for the local community to gain more support from international communities.
On this occasion, Brnabić stated that she gives ”full support” to Belgrade Pride in its bid to host EuroPride. In her letter, Brnabić emphasized the determination of the Government of Serbia in the fight against discrimination, as well as confirmed the goal of building a better and more equal society for all. Her support during the organization of EuroPride and during the difficulties experienced by the organizers was conspicuously absent, which further alienated the relationship between her and the community.
The Struggles and Hopes of the Serbian LGBTQI+ community
The last anti-discrimination law in Serbia was passed in 2009, to the great opposition of the Serbian Orthodox Church. This law protects every citizen of Serbia, regardless of their ethnicity, gender, religious, and racial identity, among other things.
After the adoption of this law, activists in Serbia focused on drafting a law on same-sex partnerships, which would, first and foremost, provide them access to health and social protection. The first draft was sent to the ruling government back in 2010 and the law was foreseen in the National Strategy for the Prevention of Discrimination 2013-2018.
In 2020, the Ministry for Human and Minority Rights and Social Dialogue was established in the second mandate of Ana Brnabić. Although there were indications that with the help of this ministry, the law will be passed in the near future, the legislation on same-sex partnerships is still not on the agenda of the Serbian Parliament.
On a couple of occasions, amendments to the law draft were proposed, which the community and activists considered undesirable.
In addition to the lack of legal protection and support for same-sex couples, the LGBTQI+ community in Serbia continues to experience a great deal of discrimination on a daily basis. Although they are legally protected from discrimination, public opinion pertaining to the LGBTQI+ community is still often rather negative.
Civil Rights Defenders reported in a 2020 survey that attitudes have improved in recent years and that more people support the community, but with growing nationalist narratives and supporters of right-wing politics, it will be necessary to monitor how this trend develops in the coming years.
More so, the fact that not enough effort is invested in educating the general public on this topic also does not help the overall perception of the LGBTQI+ community in Serbia. This notion, in turn, further encourages the creation of novel and the revival of old discriminatory ideologies that can only distance Serbian society from the democratic values for which the community has been vigorously fighting for the last twenty years.
The pervasive sentiment regarding LGBTQI+ individuals continues to be that it is an ideology imposed on the country by the West, and that people who consider themselves part of the community have been indoctrinated with this ideology.
Outside of urban centers such as Belgrade and Novi Sad, there are only a few groups and organizations that deal with the community and its issues. Having a space to feel free and safe as an LGBTQI+ individual in the periphery of Serbia, even in one of the urban centers, is still only wishful thinking.
As activists and the community are bravely fighting to pave the way to equality and build the bridge with the public, with occasional help from international bodies and representations, there is still hope that the climate related to LGBTQI+ population will change for the better in the future.