June in Eastern Europe: are the Western Balkans a quiet success story in growing LGBT acceptance?5 min read

 In Civil Society, Eastern Europe, Editorial
It is June, and around Europe LGBT+ Pride events would normally be filling the streets with rainbow flags and party atmosphere. This year, both Covid-19 and growing hostility to LGBT+ persons in countries from Hungary to Poland has dampened that atmosphere. 

However, in perhaps the unlikeliest of European regions, a quiet and gradual march towards acceptance and equality has been underway, often going unnoticed and unacknowledged amongst the more negative and attention-grabbing headlines coming out of Budapest, Warsaw or Moscow.  The Western Balkans are becoming more LGBT+ friendly, yet the world seems to have failed to notice. This is not to say that countries such as Serbia and Montenegro have turned overnight into Spain or Sweden, but there has been real progress both politically and on a societal level. 

The most obvious and groundbreaking step occurred less than a year ago when Montenegro became the first country in the region to legalise same-sex civil unions, with President Milo Dukanovic strongly endorsing the law, stating ‘Born free and equal in dignity and rights!’ adding [this brings Montenegro] ‘one step closer to joining the most developed world democracies’. This landmark decision appears to have triggered preliminary moves towards similar laws in Bosnia and Herzegovina and legal challenges in Serbia.

This is all the more impressive in an era where certain EU member states are moving to curtail the rights of LGBT+ families or even outlaw mentioning the communities in education. Whilst there could be a cynical analysis that would argue this is merely an attempt to woo the EU into a faster admission process- an added bonus that Montenegrin Prime Minister Dusko Markovic openly embraced in his statement celebrating the law. It may explain why existing EU member states, such as Hungary, Latvia, Romania and Bulgaria are performing so badly by comparison and indeed backsliding as the leverage pressure of EU accession is lifted. However, the aim of Montenegro appears to be larger than purely EU admission, it is about establishing Montenegro as a country on par with the leading global democracies– LGBT+ rights are a necessary part of that process and one that Podgorica seems to be embracing more readily than many ‘Western’ countries. 

The Western Balkans is a region often torn apart by inter-community violence, under strong influence of the Orthodox church, and a traditionally conservative and highly-macho society, all of which would not bode well for nascent attempts at improving LGBT+ rights, yet that is exactly what is happening. The change isn’t always immediately apparent; walking around the streets of Belgrade today you aren’t going to see a mecca of rainbow flags, but it doesn’t mean a quiet revolution in public opinion isn’t occurring. Only a few years ago Belgrade Pride was a highly policed affair, with attendees hounded by members of the public and police alike. Now Serbia, under the gaze of openly lesbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, sees one of the largest pride events in the region, conducted with only minor protest, let alone the violence seen in previous years which saw pride marches cancelled for four years in a row after safety concerns. A large police presence is still required, but counter-protests have diminished and the government’s repeated commitment to providing such protection has allowed the marches to go ahead yearly since 2014. 

Pride events are occurring in countries and cities, where only a few years ago LGBT+ persons could only dream of such a level of acceptance.  In 2019 Sarajevo hosted its first-ever pride march, which, while admittedly marred by counter protests and lacking attendance by any major ranking politicians it nonetheless was well-attended and broke ground marking the last country in the region to hold a Pride march. 

Serbia, Bosnia, and Montenegro etc have all risen significantly in some rankings of countries in terms of LGBT+ acceptance and safety of LGBT+ persons. They now rank similarly to neighbouring Slovenia and Croatia, but considerably higher than Western European countries such as Italy, and way above neighbouring Romania and Bulgaria. Montenegro especially stands out, coming much higher than both Germany and France. While the methodology behind such rankings is unquestionably open to interpretation– legal ‘rights’ do not always transfer to experience on the ground– they do point to a pattern of behaviour that sets the Western Balkans apart from their neighbours. It also highlights the utterly scandalous state of LGBT+ rights in some EU member states in comparison, such as Latvia, Poland and Hungary amongst others.  

In the West, we are quick to criticise the failures of our more easterly neighbours, to highlight their failings on LGBT+ issues. Though in some cases, perhaps not enough. We must, however, recognise the huge steps these societies and governments have been taking in what is often a divisive and difficult topic. We shouldn’t expect anything less of our neighbours either, nor should they expect less of themselves, but it is important to acknowledge and congratulate progress. This is something the world is often loath to do in a time when clickbait scandals gain more attention than a gradual success story. 

There is much more to do, and LGBT+ persons still suffer a higher level of inequality and intolerance in the Western Balkans than those of us lucky enough to live in more accepting countries– however in a news cycle that often focuses on the negative, let us see the positive light– progress IS being made, at least in this corner of Europe. 

Featured image: Pride / Mercedes Mehling 
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