Serbia's decision to ban this weekend's gay pride march because of security concerns has prompted criticism from EU officials who warn the the move undermines Serbia's potential accession to the European Union.
Štefan Füle, the enlargement commissioner, said on Thursday (4 October) he was concerned by the Serbian government's action, which comes ahead of the EU’s progress report on the country due next Wednesday.
“I have taken note with regret of the Serbian authorities' decision,” he said in a statement, noting that Belgrade also called off the annual pride march last year.
Past pride marches in Belgrade have been tumultuous events, in some instances with the police accused of standing aside while pride marchers were attacked.
Beta, EurActiv’s partner agency in Serbia, reported that the country’s interior minister imposed the ban because security services had indicated there was “information about plans for serious undermining of public peace and order”. Authorities had reportedly feared attacks by right-wing and ultranationalist groups.
The government, made up of nationalists and Socialists (see background), is under pressure to demonstrate its readiness to provide its commitment to human rights to keep Serbia’s EU bid on track.
Hannes Swoboda, the leader of the Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, sent a message to Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Da?i? to encourage him to allow the march.
‘Serbian government not ready’
Dutch MEP Marije Cornelissen (Greens), a member of the parliamentary committees on social affairs and gender equality, told EurActiv she had doubts over the reason why the parade was banned.
“They’re either not willing to protect vulnerable citizens and freedom of assembly, or they’re not capable,” she said, adding “both are damning”.
Cornelissen, who is in Serbia to take part in events surrounding the pride march, said in light of the ban and other issues: “I’m going to recommend to the Commission that they should not allow for accession talks to begin.”
“It’s clear that there are hooligan groups that are not afraid to use violence. The government need to take action. If they can’t then they do not comply [with accession criteria], in my opinion,” she said, adding the ban implied deficiencies in the rule of law.
She said that while Serbia had reiterated its wish to begin with accession negotiations, the country would have “accept the values” as well as the economic benefits that come with EU membership.
As a result of the government’s safety concerns, the march is due to be held indoors instead, along with other activities.
Keith Taylor, a British MEP and member of the Parliament's intergroup on lesbian and gay rights, was also due to attend the march.
"I'm deeply disappointed that this year's pride march has been cancelled," he said in a statement.
Taylor added that without ensuring the protection of diversity and human rights, Serbian members of government "abdicate their duty for ethical administration in favour of mob rule".
He said 'safety concerns' should apply to all areas of public life: "Why does Serbia continue to allow high-risk football matches, providing police protection from hooligans but not homophobes."
Commission: ‘Work to do’
An official in the EU’s Directorate General for Enlargement said Serbia had been progressing well in implementing reforms necessary for future accession negotiations, but that there was still work to be done.
“Over the past few years they’ve been doing well in some areas, and not as well in others”, the source said.
He said he could not comment further on the state of play in Serbia, ahead of the Commission progress report, which is expected to touch upon the Pride ban, but he said that human rights were among the particular focuses.
“There are areas where progress needs to be done… Of course human rights. The emphasis is specifically on this”, he said.
The European Liberal Democrats Parliament group said the cancelled Pride Festival "damages Serbia's EU membership bid". MEP ?edomir Jovanovi? commented: "No democratic society has the right to retreat from the threats of violence against basic rights."
The Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs Birgitta Ohlsson added: "The European Union comes with commitment to human rights, commitment to minority rights, commitment to freedom of speech, commitment to freedom of assembly. These are the core values of the union. LGBT-rights are human rights."
Former ultranationalist Tomislav Nikoli? was elected Serbia’s president on 20 May 2012, defeating the pro-European incumbent Boris Tadi? in a runoff.
Nikoli? has taken a pro-European stance since 2008, when his party decided to split fromthe nationalist Serbian Radical Party. But his European credentials remain to be proven. The historic leader of the Radicals, Vojislav Šešelj, is standing trial for war crimes at The Hague.
The first visit of Nikoli? abroad was to Russia. He also made controversial statements, interpreted as a denial of the genocide in Srebrenica.
On 27 July, Socialist leader Ivica Da?i? became prime minister. He was the wartime spokesman of late strongman Slobodan Miloševi?, but says the West should not doubt his pro-European stance.
- 10 October: Commission publishes progress report on Serbia and Commissioner for Enlargement Štefan Füle visits Belgrade.