To ban or not to ban? How uncertainty around Europride only benefits the Serbian president
On 12 September at noon, EuroPride week was ceremonially opened in Belgrade’s Palace of Serbia. Every day several events are planned, including film screenings, talks and art shows, as well a human rights conference. Yet whether there will be a Pride march on Saturday 17 September is still unknown. If you ask the organisers, they are getting ready for a parade. Yet Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić thinks differently.
On 27 August, Vučić held a press conference and stated that Pride would be cancelled out of security concerns. Arguing that the country is in a crisis with Kosovo and referring also to the energy crisis, he said that Serbia is not in a position to hold such an event. Admitting that this would be a violation of minority rights, he said that ‘It’s not a question of whether they [anti-LGBT 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 out lesbian prime minister, for another term. Last Saturday (10 September), he spoke positively for the first time about LGBT people and how they should be treated equally. Yet he also directly stated that activists should focus on working on laws (such as inheritance, although he declared a year ago 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 revisit the history of Pride in Belgrade itself. Back in 2001, the first ever Belgrade Pride was left unprotected by the police, which resulted 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 subsequently supported a 2010 Pride, yet as I argue in my book, Coming in: Sexual politics and EU accession in Serbia, the state also allowed counter mobilisation and the ensuing riots to occur. While Pride participants were kept safe, the kind of violence extremist were capable off was undeniable. And indeed, in each of the following three years, the Serbian government banned Pride at the last minute. In 2013, activists protested the third consecutive ban by staging a spontaneous protest under the banner ‘This is Pride’.
During the period in which Pride was banned, Serbia was also engaged in EU-mediated negotiations with Kosovo to come to an agreement over normalising their relations. Throughout, 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 no new conflict would ignite in the region and remained relatively quiet on the Pride bans; they ‘regretted’ that security threats were such that Pride could not happen. It was only after a deal was reached between Kosovo and Serbia in 2013 that the EU changed its tone and for the first time criticised Serbia for banning Pride and for the lack of political will that allowed the ban to happen. From 2014 onwards Belgrade Pride 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 actions and hinted at different ways in which history was repeating itself. In the months leading up to this event, the level of public homophobia has increased significantly, with the level of public opposition in ways similar to 2009/10. A Serbian Orthodox bishop even made a public call for violence. However, unlike in the past, and even somewhat surprisingly, Vučić has publicly condemned this violence and the nationalist opposition to EuroPride. Because of these statements, the announcement that he wanted to ban Pride was a curveball I had not expected. With the benefit of hindsight, one could say the earlier statements were made in ways to cover himself and thus creating a political climate in which he could announce the so-called cancellation. But it was only later that day, when it became public that Serbia had just agreed a new deal with Kosovo, whereby Serbia would recognise Kosovo-issued documents, 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 criticism of being a homophobe (by appointing Ana Brnabić), while also ensuring that the deal he had just made with Kosovo would be drowned out of the news cycle by cancelling the 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 not only been through statements and diplomatic channels but has also included a significant increase of international high-level delegations deciding to join Pride.
This is quite significant, and it also helps to explain why the so-called cancellation was announced so early. It seems that Vučić was counting on the international outrage, because it de facto absolved him of responsibility for the event to happen. Indeed, in one statement, he managed not only to distract the nationalist movement 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 traditional values, while also avoiding international criticism of homophobia by using Ana Brnabić as a metaphorical queer shield.
What can we expect for Saturday
Does Vučić still intend to ban Pride? We won’t know until Wednesday if the march is due to take place (any ban needs to be announced no later than ninety-six hours prior to the event). But if we consider what Vučić has to gain from banning Pride, one can conclude that banning the parade might be too politically costly for the president. Over the last decade, Vučić has crafted a reputation of being a strong man, a do-er, a reformer who gets things done. A ban, then, would not only severely undermine this image, but it would also draw too much attention to areas where the reforms he has made on paper did not lead to actual results or improvements.
Thus while I deem it more likely for the parade to happen than not, the question remains what the circumstances will be in which Pride takes place. And here the real question is how much violence would be beneficial for Vučić. Perhaps I let my scepticism of Serbian and Vučić’s politics speak too much, but I do not think it will be without incidents. Speaking to some activists involved in the local helpline, there is an increased sense of insecurity among LGBT people, and many seem to feel there is a likelihood of violence. I would tend to agree.
Much like in 2010, when the state allowed Pride but equally allowed for the riots to happen, a similar situation seems to be emerging. However, a complete repeat of 2010 is unlikely. Instead, violence will take place as relatively small, yet severe enough, clashes between police and protesters. And 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. This distinction is important, because too much violence and uncontrolled rioting (as in 2010) would undermine authorities and raise questions about the power of Vučić and the government.
Why do I still think there will be some violent protests and some incidents between police and nationalist extremists, you may ask. Again, it all relates to the message sent by these incidents. Incidents which are violent enough, yet not at a scale that would hint at a powerless and incapable state apparatus, would support Vučić’s announcement that there were too many security risks (the 'I told you so moment'), as well as providing a good excuse to return to bans in the future. Moreover, by keeping the participants safe, Vučić can still claim a victory for the state, while, as happened in 2010, shifting blame for the violence to the EU and other international actors.
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Dr Koen Slootmaeckers
Senior Lecturer in International Politics at City, University of London. Writes about LGBT politics In Serbia.