Gay rights activists in Serbia held their first Pride march in four years yesterday (28 September), walking through Belgrade streets emptied of traffic and pedestrians by a massive security operation. The EU said the march was sending a message of tolerance to the entire region.
Thousands of riot police with armoured vehicles, water cannon, horses and shields sealed off streets leading to the site of the short march from the government headquarters to parliament, to prevent a repeat of running battles between police and hardline nationalists that took place in 2010.
Authorities banned Pride for the next three years, citing security concerns.
But with Serbia setting out on talks to join the European Union, the bloc has made clear it sees Pride as a litmus test of the country’s commitment to defend the human rights of all.
Hundreds of people took part, waving rainbow flags and blowing whistles as a police helicopter flew low over the city.
“I feel phenomenal. Our efforts of the past three years have borne fruit,” said Pride organiser Boban Stojanovi?.
Asked about the scale of the police operation, co-organiser Goran Mileti? told Reuters, “This is the Serbian version of the right to free assembly and speech.”
Homophobia is widespread in Serbia, and other conservative societies in the Balkans. The head of the Serbian Orthodox Church last week compared homosexuality to paedophilia and incest.
Prime Minister Aleksandar Vu?i?, a former ultranationalist who has rebranded himself as a pro-Western reformer, said on Thursday he had “no intention” of joining the march, but several of his ministers and the mayor of Belgrade turned out.
“I’m proud of my Belgraders and other citizens of Serbia,” Vu?i? told a news conference after the march.
“We didn’t do this because of the EU,” he said, “but out of respect for the constitution, the law and respect for all, regardless of how hard it might be or how far it might conflict with our own personal views.”
A number of small incidents were reported, but nothing on the scale of 2010 when shops were trashed, buses set ablaze and dozens of police officers and rioters were injured.
An opponent standing at the edge of the police cordon, who gave his name as Mihailo, said: “It’s shameful that we should block the capital to allow a few hundred individuals to demonstrate their perverted ideas. We’re entering Europe at the cost of every single Christian value.”
As Sunday’s march ended, a group of about 30 people tried to break through police lines guarding the premises of liberal independent broadcaster B92, known for years as a bastion of free speech in Serbia. They lobbed flares and stones, injuring one police officer.
Taking part in the march, the EU’s envoy to Serbia, Briton Michael Davenport, told reporters, “This march is an important step in the protection of fundamental human rights in Serbia that all people must enjoy, including the LGBT population.”
Four ministers' meeting with organisers and their decision to participate in the march on Sunday, sent a strong message of support to Pride Parade, the Head of the EU Delegation in Serbia Michael Davenport told the International Pride Forum.
By expressing a hope that the march would take place, Davenport said it would send a clear message to the whole region, EU and beyond that Serbia respected fundamental human rights and freedoms.
As an important step forward, Davenport listed the meeting of two Parliamentary committees with the organisers of Pride Parade. Apart from the support of Government's officials and two Parliamentary Committees, Davenport also praised the launching of the National Anti-discrimination campaign run by Commissioner for Protection of Equality Nevena Petruši? .
Members of LGBT population are victims of discrimination, not only in Serbia, but in some of the EU Member States as well, and it is true that they are one of the most vulnerable groups in Serbia, Davenport said, adding that everybody shares a task of fighting against homophobia in society.
He also pointed out at the Serbian Constitutional Court's decisions about the violation of the constitutionally guaranteed right to assembly, stressing that the State itself has finally recognised these decisions.
Davenport warned that media were an important partner in process of creating a more sensitive environment and should be trained to report objectively.