On 12 September at noon, the Europride week officially began in Belgrade. Several events are planned for each day, including film screenings, talks and art shows, as well as a human rights conference. The next day, the government issued a ban of the Pride route. Just like in 2009, the government banned the march in the centre of Belgrade due to security risks posed by counterprotests. But invited activists to re-apply with a different route. Ironically, the deadline for such application was at the same time of the official opening of the EuroPride, a day before the ban was issued. Activists have already started to challenge the ban through legal means, knowing they have not only jurisprudence from the European Court of Human Rights behind them, but also the Serbian Constitutional Court which has ruled that previous bans of Pride were unconstitutional.
This brings us to the latest stage in the saga of EuroPride, which has been marked by uncertainty, since 27 August, when Vučić held a press conference and stated that the Pride March would be cancelled due to security concerns. Claiming that the country is in a crisis with Kosovo and referring to the energy crisis, he said that Serbia is not able to hold such an event. Admitting that this would be a violation of minority rights, he said that “It is not a question of whether they [extremists] are stronger, but you just can’t do it all at the same moment, and that’s it.” To further consolidate the underlying message that his intention to cancel Pride was not homophobic, he also announced that he has appointed Ana Brnabić, Serbia’s publicly lesbian Prime Minister, for another term. Last Saturday (10 September), he spoke positively about LGBT people, and said they should be treated equally for the first time. Yet, he also directly stated that activists should focus on laws (such as inheritance laws, amongst others, although he declared a year ago that he would block the proposed registered partnership law as he considers it unconstitutional) rather than having a walk through the city.
A short history of Pride in Belgrade
How did we get to this point? And what does Vučić seek to gain from banning EuroPride? To understand these actions, we need to briefly understand the history of Pride in Belgrade itself. Back in 2001, the first ever Belgrade Pride was left unprotected by the police, resulting in participants being violently attacked. In 2009, when activists renewed their wish to have a Pride, the city of Belgrade was plastered with homophobic graffiti and death threats to participants. Eventually the police banned the event. This ban led to significant international pressure, and the state supported activists in having a 2010 Pride. However, as I argue in my book, the state also allowed counter mobilisations, and the ensuing riots, to occur. Whilst Pride participants were kept safe, the kind of violence extremists were capable of was undeniable. And indeed, in the following three years, the Serbian government banned Pride last minute. In 2013, activists protested the third consecutive ban by staging a spontaneous protest under the banner “This is Pride”.
During this period in which Pride was banned, Serbia was also engaged in EU-mediated negotiations with Kosovo to normalise their relations. At that time the Serbian state and nationalist actors were very clear that you cannot have pride when relations with Kosovo – an important symbol in Serbian nationalism – are under threat. At the time, the EU was more focused on ensuring that a new conflict would not ignite in the region, and it remained relatively silent on the Pride bans: they ‘regretted’ that security threats were such that Pride could not happen. It was only after a deal was reached in 2013 between Kosovo and Serbia that the EU changed its tone and for the first time criticised Serbia for banning Pride, clearly blaming a lack of political will to allow the event to happen. From 2014 onwards Belgrade Pride has happened yearly without noteworthy incidents.
Why does this history matter, you may ask. For someone who has been researching LGBT rights in Serbia for a decade, the last several months have shown familiar patterns of action, and have suggested different ways in which history is repeating itself. In the months leading up to this event, the level of public homophobia has increased significantly, and Belgrade, yet again, saw homophobic graffiti re-emerge, similarly to 2009/2010. A Serbian Orthodox Bishop even made a public call for violence. However, unlike the past, and even somewhat surprisingly, Vučić publicly condemned this violence and the nationalist opposition to Europride. Because of these statements, the announcement that he wanted to ban Pride was something of a curveball that I had not expected. With the benefit of hindsight, one could say he was already setting the stage for his later announcement that he wants to cancel the event by showing himself to be opposing homophobia. However, it was only later that day when it became public that Serbia had not agreed a new deal with Kosovo, whereby Serbia would recognise documents issued by Kosovo, that it all made sense. Once again, and much in the spirit of the events between 2011 and 2013, a trade off was made between Pride and Kosovo.
In one day, Vučić had managed to escape any accusation of homophobia (by appointing Ana Brnabić), whilst also ensuring that the deal he had just made with Kosovo would be drowned out of the news cycle by the cancellation of Europride.
In the days and weeks to follow Vučić has remained adamant that any cancellation of Pride would be enforced. In doing so, he has also been very quick to point out that he has been resisting pressure from international actors, including President Biden and the EU. This international pressure has been applied not only through statements and diplomatic channels, but has also included a significant increase in international high-level delegations deciding to join Pride.
This is quite significant, and it also helps to explain why the apparent cancellation was announced so early. It seems that Vučić was counting on international outrage, because it de facto absolved him of responsibility for the event taking place. Indeed, in one statement, he managed to not only distract nationalist movements from the deal with Kosovo, but also firmly laid responsibility for Pride with the EU and other international actors. He furthermore showed his support for Serbian nationalism and Serbian traditional values, whilst also avoiding international criticism of homophobia by using Ana Brnabić as a metaphorical queer shield.
Speaking about Ana Brnabić, it cannot go unnoticed how she turned up to open the International Human Rights Conference only hours after her government had banned the march. Under load protest, she tried to explain how she as a Lesbian woman has made great strides for LGBT visibility in Europe. She spoke about how important it was for EuroPride to be in Belgrade, and how Serbia hosting EuroPride resembled a shift in how for LGBT rights could be achieved, how EuroPride in Belgrade was ground-breaking. Yet – Pride as the event, remained banned.
What can we expect for Saturday
Activists have been very adamant that Pride will happen. Immediately after Ana took the stage, organisers state very clearly and univocally, we will march on Saturday. Thus, while pride will definitely happen on Saturday, questions remain regarding the circumstances in which Pride will take place. And here, the real question is how much violence would be beneficial for Vučić. Indeed, speaking to some activists involved in the local help line, there is an increased sense of insecurity among LGBT people, and many seem to feel that there is a likelihood that violence will emerge. I would tend to agree. Perhaps I have become too sceptical when analysing Serbian politics, but I see too many political games being played out with LGBT people in Serbia.
As in 2010, when the state allowed Pride but equally allowed riots to take place, a similar situation seems to be emerging. However, a complete repeat of 2010, one should not expect to happen. Instead violence will take place as relatively small, yet severe enough, clashes between police and protesters. Of course, participants of the parade will be kept safe – in big part thanks to the international delegations which force the government to provide additional security to avoid any international and diplomatic embarrassments. There is a delicate balance to be found by Vučić, as too much violence and uncontrolled rioting (such as in 2010) would undermine the state authorities and would raise many questions about the power of Vučić and the government.
Why do I think there will be some violence, by way of violent protests and some incidents between police and nationalist extremists, you may ask. Again, it is all related to the message sent by these incidents. Incidents which are violent enough, yet not of such a scale that would hint at a powerless and incapable state apparatus would provide enough backing to Vučić’s claim that there are too many security risks, as well as provide a good excuse for returning to potential bans (if politically needed in the future). Moreover, by keeping the participants safe, Vučić can claim a victory for the state, whilst, just as happened in 2010, also shifting any blame to the EU and other international actors for the violence.
Whilst what is going to happen remains unknown, one thing is for sure, the 30th anniversary of Europride is one that we won’t easily forget and of which the consequences will be felt for many years to come.
Koen Slootmaeckers is a Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) in International Politics at City, University of London. He has a background in sociology (BSc and MSc from Ghent University [Belgium]) and holds PhD in Political Science from Queen Mary University of London. Koen is a former co-chair and current executive board member of the Council of European Studies' Gender and Sexuality Research Network; and an executive committee member for UACES.
His research deals with the promotion of and resistance to LGBT equality in international politics. His book, Coming in: Sexual politics and EU accession in Serbia will be out with Manchester University Press in early 2023.