EuroPride starts in tense atmosphere in Belgrade

EuroPride starts in tense atmosphere in Belgrade
By bne IntelliNews September 12, 2022

The week-long EuroPride event started in the Serbian capital Belgrade on September 12, with the organisers defying an official ban on the event and thousands-strong protests led by the powerful Serbian Orthodox Church. 

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic announced on August 27 that EuroPride Europe’s biggest Pride event had been cancelled, a decision officials attributed to existing tensions in the country, meaning they did not have the capacity to ensure the event would go ahead smoothly. However, the organisers insisted EuroPride would go ahead. 

Explaining the decision, Vucic said the government had been under heavy pressure from right-wing groups and representatives of the Serbian Orthodox Church to cancel the parade. 

Prime Minister Ana Brnabic later elaborated on the Serbian government position, when she said the march planned for September 17 could not be held safely in Serbia because of the need to focus on preventing violence in northern Kosovo. Serbia has been engaged in a standoff with Kosovo over Pristina’s announcement of new rules for ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo. 

EuroPride, which will run from September 12-18, includes days of events in Belgrade as well as the planned Pride march. Also among the events on the schedule is a community talk to discuss the ban, titled 'The prohibition of Pride Violation of the Constitution or preservation of peace and stability?'

The debate over whether the event would go ahead highlighted tensions within Serbia, an aspiring EU member with Emerging Europe’s first openly gay prime minister, but where traditional values still hold strong, as in many countries in Central and Eastern Europe. 

Vucic described Serbia as the stage for a proxy war between East and West, speaking to Reuters on August 29.  Commenting on a protest at the end of August, Vucic told the newswire: "I cannot say that it was a proxy attack, because there were many ordinary people there ... but whether there is a proxy conflict in Serbia ... there is one, no doubt about that, East and West.” 

The EuroPride event sparked strong opposition led by the Serbian Orthodox church and protests in Belgrade, the most recent on September 11 when thousands of people turned out. A procession through the capital was led by Serbian Orthodox clergy, but observers said some of the participants carried Russian flags and portraits of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

On the other hand, the authorities in Belgrade have been under pressure from Western politicians, including dozens of members of the European Parliament, to allow the event to go ahead. 

At the end of August, 145 members of the European Parliament sent a letter to Vucic and Brnabic, urging them to reconsider the decision to cancel EuroPride. 

On August 31, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken added his voice to the calls from European politicians in urging Belgrade to reconsider. “Freedoms of peaceful assembly and expression are essential components of a healthy democracy. We urge Serbia to renew its commitment to hosting EuroPride 2022. LGBTQI+ rights are human rights,” Blinken wrote on Twitter.

As reported by bne IntelliNews, LGBT and alternative lifestyles in general remain a very difficult subject for the people of the whole former socialist bloc, where a large majority of citizens retain conservative values rooted in the Orthodox Church or Islam. Homophobia and even random violent attacks on gays are widespread and common. Discrimination is institutional and few countries have adopted anti-hate speech laws or legislation to support same-sex partnerships.

The EU candidate countries in the Western Balkans have made more progress on reforms positively affecting LGBTQI+ people than the EU members from the region. Montenegro has the best legal and policy environment for LGBTQI+ people in the emerging Europe region, according to the Rainbow Europe Map and Index from International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association in Europe (ILGA-Europe). Montenegro was the top ranked country from the emerging Europe region and is only outperformed by 10 West European countries (Malta, Belgium and Luxembourg top the list). 

While several Pride marches have been held in Belgrade, the events always arouse controversy. The march in September 2018, for example, 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. 

Previously, 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.