It’s About Time Vučić’s Government Took a Position on LGBTI+ Equality8 min read

 In Analysis, Civil Society, Southeastern Europe
Perpetual avoidance of anything that could be interpreted as a stance on LGBTI+ rights has become a growing trend for the Serbian ruling government. Such evasion is characterised by deliberately ignoring calls from civil society groups to improve LGBTI+ equality and by repeatedly shifting opinions.

The most recent act of ambiguity came just two months ago when, after a sudden 11th-hour change of direction, Serbia’s EuroPride march was allowed to go ahead as originally planned. Initially, the Serbian government decided to cancel the final march before eventually revoking the ban after various stakeholders and organisations across the continent weighed in. As a result, between 12 and 18 September, various LGBTI+ events were held across Serbia’s capital including art shows, films and workshops. However, it was the culmination of the events into one Pride march that became a source of controversy on a scale not seen in nearly two decades.

The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance has highlighted the dangers of government refusal to prevent intolerant behaviour and discourse, stating that authorities are by consequence complicit in legitimising hateful narratives and the aggravation of intolerance towards minorities. So, is it the fault of populism that LGBTI+ rights have progressed so slowly over the last few years in the region, and is it also the reason why Serbia witnessed a perceivably sudden resurgence of anti-LGBTI+ hate this summer? The short answer is yes.

What is EuroPride?

EuroPride is an annual event held each year by a different country in Europe. Previous hosts have included Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom who held the very first EuroPride in 1992. The total number of countries to have taken on the host role is currently at 15, with the list of former communist countries being noticeably smaller – Poland, Latvia, and now Serbia.

As reflected by the 2022 Pride, the event typically consists of cultural, sporting, and artistic events across the host city for a fortnight, ultimately ending in a Pride march. Each year, a new theme is chosen by the host city and the Pride organisers. For Serbia, the theme was ‘It’s About Time’. This year, organisers sought to empower the queer community to continue their long-standing fight for equality and human rights in the region. And with it being a pan-European event, the Pride also offered many people from across Europe, an opportunity to show their solidarity with the LGBTI+ community in the Western Balkans. 

Significantly, a general prerequisite for hosting the pan-European event is previous experience organising Pride marches without violence. Therefore, given Serbia’s more recent history, having safely conducted annual Pride in its capital since 2014, the bid made by Belgrade Pride attracted a landslide vote of 71% from members of the European Pride Organisation Association. Serbia was resultantly granted the esteemed opportunity to host the much-anticipated EuroPride 2022, beating alternative proposals from Ireland, Spain, and Portugal. 

There was widespread praise regarding Poland’s hosting of the event in 2010, with the country taking on a demand for legislation of same-sex marriage as its theme. Such success may have led to high hopes for Serbia, as the first former Yugoslav state to host EuroPride. It was envisioned that EuroPride would be a ‘pivotal breakthrough for LGBTI+ rights and acceptance across the Western Balkans’, as claimed by Belgrade Pride. Emphasis was placed on the tremendous impact that this event could potentially have on the acceptance of LGBTI+ people in a country plagued with division and infamous for hostility towards the queer community. Hosting such an event was also intended to put pressure on authorities to not only implement already existing laws protecting LGBTI+ rights but to also adopt new ones – especially regarding the legal status of same-sex partnerships.

The conservative backlash 

In the weeks leading up to the festivities, socially conservative groups, including representatives from the Serbian Orthodox Church, bounded together to hold regular demonstrations across Belgrade in protest of the EuroPride. For example, extremely influential figure Nikanov Bogunović, a bishop of the Orthodox Church, publicly condemned the Pride, vowing to ‘curse’ its attendees and further used excessively violent imagery in his threats and attempts to deter potential participants. In addition to religious leaders, political representatives also joined in verbally attacking the Pride. The far-right party “Zaventici” in particular held a protest in August with tens of thousands of citizens calling on the government to cancel the Pride march specifically. 

Thus, much to the disappointment of organisers and many international representatives, the Serbian government made the abrasive decision on 28 August to cancel the final Pride march, citing the threats of violence from far-right groups and a lack of ability to protect prospective attendees. What is puzzling, however, is that hostile resistance to Pride and the LGBTI+ community in Serbia is nothing new. Since 2014, adequate protection has been provided to ensure such events are able to take place and allow the freedom of expression of LGBTI+ citizens. So why did the government deem it fit this year to claim that this was not possible and attendees were in imminent danger from counter-protesters?

While small protests have taken place each year, albeit peacefully, this year these counter-protests took on a key new feature. Thousands of citizens took part in religious (Litije) walks, carrying religious icons, crosses and nationalist flags, protesting against the supposed imposition of Western values and LGBTI+ agenda whilst also declaring support for Russian President, Vladimir Putin. Disillusion with EU promises and Europe, in general, has evidently developed over the last few years in Serbia, especially from an economic perspective. Several recent crises caused by events in Kosovo, the COVID-19 pandemic, and Europe’s current gas crisis, have each potentially added to an already present disappointment with the EU.

The fault of populism

 Whether the populist President bowed to conservative pressure or genuinely sought to protect Pride participants, one may assume that the lack of available policing was a convenient excuse to block the expression of LGBTI+ freedom in Serbia. Vučić, and even his openly LGBTI?+ Prime Minister Ana Brnabić, have been routinely criticised for their avoidance and lack of action regarding LGBTI+ issues, often stressing that other matters are much more of a political priority for the country. For instance, both Vučić and Brnarbić have repeatedly cited the crisis with Kosovo and ensuing energy worries as reasons why the state could not handle potential clashes with right-wing groups.

Brnarbić has explicitly stated that LGBTI+ issues do not affect the entire population, and she would therefore wish the government to focus on those that do, which goes against the reasoning of many human rights defenders around the world. This was also incredibly disappointing to hear from someone who could have been an exceptional advocate for LGBTI+ causes in the Balkan region.  Ironically, on the very same day, Brnarbić was reappointed as Prime Minister, it was announced that the Pride march for Serbian and many other queer communities would not happen. 

The somewhat grimly predictable reaction from the government in this instance was to bow down to pressure exerted by a relatively small, yet vocal, conservative section of Serbian society. As such, this particular response disappointed many activists, community members, and political representatives at the national and international levels. Thankfully, voices in support of LGBTI+ rights were loud enough to be heard over right-wing criticism and false narratives. 

Means of supporting the queer community

The continual shifting of opinion and trivialising of LGBTI+ issues has arguably been a result of populist leadership that aims to fall in line with the loudest group. Ideally, building and sustaining democracy would be the key solution to ensuring LGBTI+ rights in Serbia. However, this is only a long-term solution since it cannot be implemented overnight.

In the case of EuroPride, intervention from the EU and prominent figures in the international human rights sector proved successful in securing the Pride march as an expression of freedom. It was determined that any attempt to ban the pride would violate Articles 11, 13, and 14 of the European Convention of Human Rights, something which has been ratified by Serbia. Meanwhile, several EU officials repeatedly expressed a desire to join the EuroPride march regardless of its legal status, with 145 MEPs signing a letter to the Serbian leadership condemning the initial postponement of the Pride march. Each wave of disapproval of the cancellation or postponement of the Pride threatened Serbia’s place in the EU more and more, and Serbia’s current view of membership has again been put into question.

NGOs and Civil Society groups have also shown throughout this ordeal to have a strong willingness and resilience to protect the rights and freedoms of the queer community in the Balkans and Serbia specifically. EuroPride organisers, for example, vowed to take to the streets of Belgrade, with up to ten thousand fellow participants, in protest of the ban before its revocation. Marko Mihailović, a coordinator of this year’s EuroPride, stated that the initial cancellation has been useful in drawing attention to the systematic discrimination and lack of political will within Serbia to defend LGBTI+ rights, further exposing faults in the system and the reality of those in power.

It is crucial to note that absolutely no individuals or groups spreading hatred and disinformation about the EuroPride have been prosecuted or sanctioned in any way. This raises questions regarding the level of seriousness that the current Serbian government views EU membership criteria, given that such prosecution is one of the key measures required for eventual membership. Furthermore, this lack of action contradicts the supposed concern for the safety of participants from far-right groups as claimed by Serbian authorities. One can only hope that Serbian officials will be able to fully commit to the protection and equality of LGBTI+ citizens. Although based on the preparedness of the Serbian government to go against the European Court of Human Rights, undermining its long-term commitment to gaining EU membership, this may just be another naive dream. 

Featured image: Belgrade Pride Facebook
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