OPINION: Belgrade’s EuroPride parade was a victory against the Kremlin

OPINION: Belgrade’s EuroPride parade was a victory against the Kremlin
The EuroPride 2022 parade was a triumph of love over hate. / EuroPride2022
By Ann Smith in New York September 20, 2022

What happened on Saturday, September 17, when Belgrade hosted the first EuroPride parade in Eastern Europe, can be perfectly described in Neil Armstrong’s words when he became the first human to set foot on the moon: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind!”

The EuroPride2022 parade showed that the majority of citizens of Serbia still want to live in democratic and civilised world despite all the efforts by Moscow to dig an unbridgeable hole on the country’s path toward the European Union and closer relations with the United States. 

EuroPride is a pan-European international LGBTIQ+ event featuring a Pride parade, hosted by a different European city each year. Belgrade hosted EuroPride2022 from September 12 until September 18. The crown of the event was the Pride march on September 17.

The parade happened even though it was initially banned, obstructed and demonised by many political and institutional actors. The parade happened without major incidents even though extremists tried to beat up everyone who looked as if they might disagree with them, including the police. The parade happened even though the ‘Big Brother' in the East didn’t want it to happen, if nothing else but to distract the world’s attention from its war in Ukraine. The parade happened even though the country’s current leadership is seen as autocratic and retrograde and mightily scared of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

And thus, anyone who tries to deny that Saturday’s walk was a victory, doesn’t really understand the circumstances. 

The circumstances

Belgrade was voted as the location for EuroPride 2022 back in September 2019, a week before Belgrade Pride 2019 took place. That was a relatively successful event simply because no major incidents occurred. The country’s Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, the first openly gay PM in the region, attended the 2019 event, accompanied by her partner. However, several groups of extremists, so-called ‘patriJots’ — a mocking term for nationalistic self-styled patriots — that are fanatical believers in their own interpretation of Orthodox Christianity, clashed with the police when trying to attack participants of the Pride parade. 

Just like every prior event designated to help improve the status of the LGBTIQ+ community in the country, EuroPride2022 was a target for far-right groups. Those that believe that being gay ‘is not according to God’s order and wishes’ also believe that ‘Russia is the mother’ and consider Putin to be their president, because the elected president of the country in which they live, Aleksandar Vucic, betrayed them when he let Brnabic become prime minister and allowed parades they see as conflicting with traditional Serbian family values.

Far-right political parties support those groups, as do a significant part of the membership of Vucic’s ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and its coalition partners.

The backbone of extremism is the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC). The SPC is one of the most trusted institutions in the country. It is also under the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, which in turn is under the influence of the Kremlin. The SPC’s popularity has been growing since the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, supported by Russia. 

This brings explicit gains to Moscow because it’s hard to spot a big Orthodox believer who is not also a ‘patriJot’ and Putin supporter.

At a time when the negotiation process between Belgrade in Pristina is at a halt, when Serbia needs to take a stand against Russia in order not to lose the progress achieved in last 20 years, the timing for EuroPride 2022 seemed to be perfect — but not only for the Serbian side. The timing was also perfect for Moscow to distract the world from its loses in Ukraine.

Since Putin came to power, Moscow’s open goal in the Balkans and Eastern Europe has been to negatively influence people’s sentiments towards the West rather than to motivate them to love Russia. 

Opposing EuroPride and canceling the march, an event sponsored and supported by the EU and US, would have made Serbia look like an unreliable partner, a retrogressive society, a “Z” population whose place is not in the EU community. Distancing Serbia from the political West would be a gain for Russia. Opposing EuroPride by underlining how it promotes western debauchery brings additional points to Russia because it sparks hate toward the EU and US within parts of Serbian society. 

Many of those open to Russian influence in Serbia are the victims of transition, generations born in communist Yugoslavia, that lived through civil war, lost chances to get educated and improve their lives, and now use social media and other dubious news sources, mainly controlled by Russia, to get informed. It wasn’t hard to make these people angry and aggressive and ready to go out on the streets. 

When a couple of weeks prior to the march, in late August, Vucic announced that the parade wouldn’t happen because “the government’s assessment that safety conditions are bad”, the SPC cheered his decision.

“The Holy Synod of Bishops is convinced that holding this ‘parade', in the service of promoting LGBT ideology, which is trying to impose itself on Europe and the so-called Western world in general, and, unfortunately, on our people, would not be beneficial for anyone, but, on the contrary, would cause additional tensions and new divisions; and among the believers of the Serbian Orthodox Church and all other traditional churches and religious communities in Serbia, indignation and revolt,” the SPC said in a statement on August 27. 

The SPC’s statement and Vucic’s announcement were followed by a rally led by extremists and supported by Putin’s bikers, the Night Wolves. Participants carried portraits of Putin as well as Orthodox motifs. The protest on August 28, was the second anti-parade gathering after an earlier rally on August 14, and it was followed by one more on September 11. 

Commenting on the August 28 protest, Vucic stated: “I cannot say that it [the protest] 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, [between] East and West," he said, speaking to Reuters at his office in Belgrade on August 29 

Playing with two fires 

Following Vucic’s announcement, Brnabic called on the organisers of EuroPride2022 to give up the march. The only result was deep disappointment in her and loud disagreement when she showed up at the conference on human rights which was part of the EuroPride2022 programme on September 13. On the same day, the Serbian interior ministry (MUP) banned the Pride march but also a request from rightwing groups to hold a ‘pro-family’ march same day. The MUP said that the “risk to the safety of participants of both marches on announced routes as well as the safety of other citizens is high”. 

The government’s decision was backed by the Administrative Court a day later, after the EuroPride2022 organisers appealed. 

On the other hand, there was vocal support for EuroPride2022 from 22 Western countries. This angered the extremists that were still celebrating the ban on the march and did not believe that the LGBTIQ+ community members, as well as over 1,000 guests from abroad and supporters, would still take to the streets

Meanwhile, the organisers submitted another request for a walk but on a different and shorter route —an idea that didn’t occur to the right-wingers. It was quite unpredictable what was going to happen and the beginning of the march was postponed multiple times. Finally, just a couple of hours before the latest announced start, the police approved the walk. The timing of the decision didn’t give the ‘patriJots’ time to organise better or commit worse violence. 

Some claim US ambassador Christopher Hill gave the order to Vucic to allow the march to go ahead. But, isn’t that better than if the order came from the Kremlin?

Hate vs love

Even now Pride is over, the feeling of pride is still strong. The pride of Pride that comes as a victory of love over hate, especially in societies in transition, makes normal people for a second forget about fanatics and their messages and their anger. The march on September 17, in this regard, was just the same as every parade Serbia has had in the last 20 years. On one side, one could see only love and happiness even though everybody who participated in the march worried (secretly) about how they would get home. It was known that hooligans were grouping and attacking police and trying to reach and beat the citizens walking proudly. 

Despite the threat, EuroPride2022 was the best party ever. According to the organiser, over 13,000 people walked to improve the position of LGBTIQ+ community members. People were holding banners saying: “Love is the law”, “My mum loves me”, “Love for All”, “Same rights for Everyone”, “Thank you, God, that I am gay”, “You are not alone”, “For All Children” and many other joyful messages.  

On the side was only hate, and a wish to beat and kill in the name of God. The police did their duty in protecting citizens from any kind of violence, even if some, presumably, were not in sympathy with the Pride marchers. According to Minister of Interior Aleksandar Vulin, 13 police officers were injured on September 17 in Belgrade. Brabic said that 5,200 members of the police secured the EuroPride2022 March.

Bloody Pride history of Serbia

Belgrade is still not Amsterdam. After 10 years of bloody fights against former dictator Slobodan Milosevic’s repression and wars in the neighbourhood, the city (that never sleeps and always wins — that’s how Belgradians like to describe it) has started its fight for equality of all its population. 

LGBTIQ+ didn’t really exist on paper in Tito’s Yugoslavia. According to Vreme magazine columnist Ivan Ivanji (a Holocaust survivor from Serbia), in the criminal code of Yugoslavia, "debauchery against the natural order" was listed as a punishable offence and that referred to an "anal act between two men". Socialist Yugoslavia did not change that law until 1977. “It is interesting that sexual relations between women had never been criminalised, the problem of lesbian love didn’t exist. It was ignored in Hitler’s Germany too,” Ivanji wrote in his column on September 17.

The first Pride in Serbia was on June 20, 2001 under the slogan “There is enough room for Evryone”. It was a small but bloody event stopped by football fans, right-wingers and some SPC representatives. The police weren’t prepared and couldn’t do a lot. Whoever was in downtown Belgrade that afternoon experienced the violence of haters.  

The second Pride was planned for 2004 but didn’t happen because of safety risks and mass protests by conservatives over the vandalisation of Serbian heritage, that led to the burning of mosques in Belgrade and Nis and attacks on some embassies. In 2009, the government again banned planned Pride after numerous treats from football fans and other far-right groups. 

The bloodiest Pride was the one in October 2010. It did happen but vandalism and violence prevailed. In clashes between police and hooligans, hundreds of police officers were injured, public and private property was destroyed and Serbia was global news. Next year, the government again banned the parade. Instead of taking place on the streets, Pride Week was held at the Belgrade Media Center and went without incidents. 

The same happened for two more years until a real Pride parade finally happened on September 28, 2014, under Vucic. Going to the march was like going to a music concert. Everyone was checked by the police, who formed a ring around participants. The symbolic walk was only about half a mile long but it was seen as a victory. Also under Vucic, Serbia got a lesbian PM who would join walks and Pride weeks. 

It is ironic that Vucic, a symbol of Milosevic’s day, has done more for the LGBTIQ+ community than previous democratic governments, from whom everybody expected more effort. 

However, challenges remained over the last 20 years and again escalated this September — almost seven months after the start of the war in Ukraine. 

Meanwhile members of Serbia’s LGBTIQ+ community want to have equal rights, want not to be discriminated against just because of who they are, want to openly love whoever they love and not risk being beaten because of that.

The march on that rainy September 17 may have been the shortest march but it was definitely the most significant one for many reasons — human values won over uncivilised stupidity, democracy over chauvinism, the police protected its citizens after the government ordered unconditional resistance to hooligans. The number of supporters was larger than number of  LGBTIQ+ people and that was maybe the most important message for the world: maybe Putin supporters are louder but they are not the majority, and Serbia belongs to the EU. 

Ann Smith has been following and writing about transitional justice, war crimes, human rights, security (defence and terrorism), European and Euro-Atlantic aspirations and international relations in the Balkans since 2000. She holds a master degree in humanitarian international law as well as in journalism/political sciences.