In early September, Serbia played Croatia in a world cup qualifying match, only the second game since the violent collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The government dispatched more than 4,000 riot police to ensure that football hooligans caused no destruction, and protected the small group of Croatia fans with a police escort.
The effort put into the protective measures have LGBT activists asking why the government can protect football fans from one another but cannot ensure security for their weeklong queer festival, which is supposed to culminate in a pride parade on September 28. 2011 and 2012 parades were banned by authorities at the last minute because of security concerns.
Since taking power just over a year ago, the socialist-nationalist government, whose leaders have ties to the very politicians who tore Yugoslavia apart, have made rapid progress on European Union accession, mostly by ceding territorial claims to Kosovo as part of a Brussels-brokered April agreement to ‘normalise’ relations with its former province.
But it remains to be seen whether or not they will support the parade, choosing to keep quiet in the socially conservative country where 80 percent of the population opposes the march, more than two thirds think homosexuality is a curable illness, and fourteen percent think the correct response to LGBT individuals is violence. Before joining the EU, Serbia will have to work overtime to demonstrate its commitment to human rights.
Serbia held its first pride in 2001, just as the country was emerging from international sanctions and two days after nationalist strongman Slobodan Milosevic had been sent to the Hague. Political change was in the air, but not for the country’s LGBT community. The government sent only a small contingent of 50 police did little to counter 2,000 right wing extremists. No one commented on the event.
The next parade, held in 2010, had 100 times the police but their tear gas and armored cars were no match for the 6,000 counter protesters. Fifty seven people were injured and far-right hooligans perpetrated millions of damage looting businesses and attacking the national TV broadcaster and political party offices. Far-right conservatives hijacked a bus and pushed it down the street before it collided with an electric pole.
Hate crime and gender equality legislation required for Serbia’s official EU candidacy squeaked through in March 2009 but violent attacks on LGBT populations. Following the cancellation of the pride in 2009, the police arrested the leaders of ultra-nationalist groups “1389,” and “Obraz,” but did not charge them under the anti-discrimination law.
In 2010, then-president Boris Tadic for the first time gave his public support to the parade, but since then most politicians have kept mum. Authorities banned pride the following two years citing security concerns. This year, as in each past year, pride organizers met with the interior ministry on September 9 to discuss necessary security measures, but the ministry has remained mum on the question of whether or not it will give the activists a permit. This is the first time the government will have to make a decision since a May ruling of the Serbia’s Constitutional Court that the 2011 ban on the festival was a violation of the constitutionally-enshrined right to assembly. However, a December 2011 ruling by the same court that the banning of Pride 2009 was unconstitutional did not pave the way for a 2012 parade.
Serbia is making some progress. In January, a court in Serbia’s second city Novi Sad handed down its first verdict based on discrimination against sexual orientation in the workplace. In advance of the upcoming pride week, the rightist Serbian national movement “Nasi” (“ours”) has been distributing a “Gay Parade Survival Guide,” that describes homosexuality as a “profound mental and spiritual disorder and in most cases, the result of poor parent-child relationships.”
The conservative Orthodox Church has referred to the parade in the past as a “parade of shame,” comparing it to Sodom and Gommorah. Dacic has stood up to the church by moving forward with the Kosovo agreement, but it is unclear if he will be willing to ignore its Patriarch Irinej on this issue.
Twenty embassies have confirmed participation in pride week. In early September, 15 ambassadors sent letters to Prime Minister Ivica Dacic urging him to ensure that the pride goes ahead without violence, calling it a test of its tolerance to European Union values of tolerance and diversity.
"A peaceful and joyous Pride in Belgrade on September 28, properly secured by authorities, would be another signal of Serbia's commitment to creating a culture of tolerance and diversity and will counter ... hate speech, discrimination and violence," Dutch Ambassador to Serbia Laurent Stokvis said in his letter to Dacic.
The Serbian government has made great strides in its commitment to peace in the region through painstaking negotiations with predominantly ethnic Albanian Kosovo. However, despite Kosovo’s role as a locus of lore and national myth, polling shows that average Serbs look down more on homosexuals than on the widely disliked Albanians.
The 2013 pride parade will be an opportunity for Serbia not only to affirm its commitment to European norms, but to its own constitution.