Several hundred people marched through downtown Belgrade in Serbia’s third gay pride parade on September 18. The march was peaceful but took place amid an extremely heavy police presence, with around 5,000 police on the streets according to media estimates, and helicopters flying overhead.
Holding a gay parade is seen as an important test of the Serbian government’s commitment to EU values and equality in a society which has been deeply conservative. Serbia's open EU negotiation chapters include Chapter 23 on the judiciary and fundamental rights and Chapter 24 on justice, freedom and security.
The march was held under the slogan “Love changes the world!” and demonstrators included LGBT activists, politicians, diplomats, journalists as well as ordinary citizens with their children and pets.
It took place without incident and in a significantly more relaxed atmosphere than previous gay parades, according to Boban Stojanovic, a Belgrade prominent gay activists and a representative of the citizens organisation Belgrade Pride Parade which organised the event.
The town functioned normally as far was possible during the march. “People are drinking coffees in cafes, going shopping…” local media quoted Stojanovic as saying.
Serbia failed to hold gay parades for several years after the first two events ended in violent clashes. There was a 10-year hiatus after the first attempt in 2001 ended in brutal violence on streets. There were also clashes in 2010 when around 6,000 right-wing extremists and hooligans, mainly football fans, caused damage in the town by burning and vandalising cars, and breaking windows and other public property. Over 140 people were injured, including many policemen.
For the next three years the government banned the march, which it assessed as a “high level risk” event. However, pride resumed in 2014 and has taken place annually since then, though always with heavy security.
“It is clear that the pride organisers cooperate close with the police and with other institutions which, obviously, support pride and that’s also a positive message to everyone about respect of human rights of all citizens in Serbia,” the head of the EU Delegation to Serbia Michael Davenport said during the September 18 march in Belgrade.
Alongside Davenport were numerous diplomats including US ambassador Kyle Scott, Axel Dittmann of Germany and Guiseppe Mancuso of Italy.
The march started at the Belgrade’s Slavija Square and ended at Republic Square, a 1km route that seen as historic as for the first time the march ended in central Republic Square. After the march, Belgrade Pride participants held a concert in the square.
As well as foreign diplomats, the Serbian state showed its support for the event as among those who walked were Belgrade’s mayor Sinisa Mali, the president of the parliamentary committee for human rights Meho Omerovic, and Serbia’s first openly gay minister, Minister of State Administration Ana Brnabic.
Brnabic spoke to regional broadcaster N1 about the position of the LGBT population in Serbia during the march.
“I have the impression that we are making the right steps. Congratulations to the organisers for their courage. I’m not an activist but this means a lot to me, for my town and my country,” Brnabic said.
“What happened today is not just a Pride celebration for lesbians, gays and bisexuals and transgender persons. This is a celebration for all male and female workers who keep quiet and suffer … This is celebration for all male and female Roma people … This is a celebration for all people with disabilities … This is holiday for all women who believe that saying “a hit hurts me” will bring on another blow,” Stojanovic said in his address to the crown.
“Today is a celebration of all who, in their homes, schools, faculties, working places, streets, institutions, but also on the borders of this state, keep quiet and suffer because they feel powerless. Today we are telling to all of them, all of you, all of us, that is worth fighting and is worth living!” Stojanovic said.