The Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group
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Surviving the Belgrade Pride Parade

Since then, the situation has not really improved. A number of initiatives led by civil society activists and non-governmental organizations trying to raise awareness about the main issues and propose possible solutions have not reached far enough. From the outside, the European Commission has criticized the Serbian authorities’ approach towards the position of LGBTI people; for example, its 2011 report stressed that although “[t]hey are frequently victims of intolerance, hate speech and even physical attacks,” “[p]ublic officials have been reluctant to publicly condemn such incidents,” suggesting that “the anti-discrimination law still has to be brought further into line with EU legislation.” Similar observations were made in the Commission’s subsequent annual reports (available here and here), both calling the authorities “to develop a proactive approach towards the better inclusion of the LGBTI population and a greater understanding across society.”

The 2014 Belgrade parade was originally supposed to take place in May. However, due to the unexpectedly heavy rain and floods that paralyzed Serbia, the organizers decided to cancel the pride walk. It is worth recalling that just before its cancellation, Serbian Patriarch Irinej used the floods-motivated supplicatory prayer to say that the floods represented a clear warning from God, given that Belgrade was preparing itself to stage another immoral event which was, in the patriarch’s view, “a happening going against God and the law of nature.” As I wrote in my earlier LSEE blog post, the patriarch’s readiness to (ab)use the prayer in order to portray the LGBTI community and parade as liable for the floods is scandalous, to say the least; apart from contradicting his own advocacy of Serbian solidarity, his opinion could also contribute to a further deterioration of the relationship between the straight and non-straight members of the society. This time, closer to the pride day, Church leadership again felt obliged to comment and repeat the immorality aspect of the LGBTI community; it cynically asked: “If being gay is justified and should be propagated, than why it is not the same for pedophilia, largely widespread in the West, or incest?”

However, as soon as the exact date and walking route had become known, the Ministry of the Interior made it clear that it would examine possible security challenges and how to address them. As it happened, a rather brutal attack on a visitor, who had arrived from Germany for a conference on LGBTI issues, questioned Belgrade’s preparedness to host pride week and, especially, the parade. Prime minister Aleksandar Vučić immediately delivered a statement, underscoring that “the [Serbian] state will do everything so that human rights are protected” – one of those promising phrases Brussels officials love to hear. According to one member of the European Parliament, “[p]olitical leaders have finally shown leadership by univocally condemning the attack and stating they will do everything to protect LGBTI people from violence and discrimination.” Indeed, despite numerous inflammatory statements about various threats and possible confrontations, and the anti-parade protest organized by the far-right Dveri movement – the Security Service Coordination Bureau allowed the march to take place. Interestingly, the rhetoric of other extremist groups (all of them quite active during the previous attempts to organize and hold pride marches) did not play any role now – an aspect clearly questioning what kind of informal contacts exist between the dominant Serbian Progressive Party and hooligans.

On the day of pride, Belgrade turned into a city under siege, with more than 7,000 police officers called out to ensure the safety of the pride participants. A few members of the political establishment did join, but others, who openly supported the parade and whose presence would be absolutely crucial, were somewhere else besides the scene. For example, Prime Minister Vučić said he was not interested in the parade and went to visit some flood affected areas in eastern Serbia, while hoping that all would end well in Belgrade. First Deputy Prime minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Ivica Dačić, when asked if he would agree to lead the pride march, responded: “It is highly unlikely that I would lead it; I see no reason in doing so.” And somehow, Pride did end well – a number of minor incidents did not prevent the well-guarded participants from completing their march. Looking superficially, the outcome has provided the LGBTI community with hope. In addition, it could also be interpreted as a message to far-right movements and the Serbian Orthodox Church that their voice and sex-radical advice can easily be ignored.

Still, what remains questionable is the overall sincerity of the Vučić government to support the parade, especially given the fact that some of its top officials and passionate supporters are former members of the far-right Serbian Radical Party. With this in mind, if the current government had decided to “support” the 2014 pride just in order to secure additional credibility in front of Brussels and the West, in general, than the LGBTI community has no real reason for celebration. This kind of arrangement is not about its position, reduction of homophobia, marriage or civil partnership, etc. Here, its position is of secondary (or even tertiary) relevance, thus serving some other purposes, such as the next European Commission’s progress report, while at the same time the government is likely to continue with its highly contested policies, at home. As analyzed elsewhere, Prime minister Vučić has paid a lot of attention to his image abroad, securing himself the status of uber-charismatic. At home, image is less important; the focus is on his power.

On the other hand, if the government is interested in improving the position of the LGBTI community, and therefore sees the 2014 pride as a good turning point, than it should not take it long to pursue further action. To begin with, it could openly tell the Serbian Orthodox Church that its involvement is pointless (given its own homosexuality-related scandals), it could support educational programmes providing the citizens (especially the youth) with an opportunity to learn more about diversity and tolerance, etc. Throughout the process, getting support from the media could be of great help – this should not be difficult, given the government’s power over them. Needless to say, this approach implies certain political risks and encourages the following question: Although aware of the widespread intolerance amongst the public, why would the ruling elite do anything that goes beyond minimal external expectations, risking to irritate the same intolerant public and lose votes next time?

Branislav Radeljić

Branislav Radeljić is a senior lecturer in international politics at the University of East London. He is the author of Europe and the Collapse of Yugoslavia: The Role of Non-State Actors and European Diplomacy (2012), and editor of Europe and the post-Yugoslav Space (2013), and Debating European Identity: Bright Ideas, Dim Prospects (2014).
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