The decision to call off the Belgrade Pride Parade represents a serious set-back for the liberal sector in Serbia and a significant victory for the darkest nationalist forces.
Only once has a LGTB Pride Parade been organized in Serbia, in 2001. The Milosevic regime had been overthrown some months earlier, in October 2000, and, led by Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, Serbia seemed to be experiencing, for the first time, an environment allowing the full expression of the liberal ambitions of one part of its society. The Parade was violently disrupted by extreme right youth groups, led by the clero-fascist organization Obraz. The violent attack and the failure of the state to garantee the security of the event, held only two days after Milosevic’s deportation to the Hague, revealed the height of the challenges that those committed into building a civic society in Serbia would have to face. It didn’t take long until hope in positive change started to be replaced by increasing scepticism.
For the LGTB community, the event highlighted the need to return to the semi-clandesitne status in which it had previously been living. To say semi-clandestine statues when refering to Serbia’s gays and lesbians is to mention only the small minority of gays and lesbians organized in NGO’s or informal associations. For most, being homosexual means to live in total clandestinity, hiding and denying one’s identity even from the closest friends, not to mention the family, and in the case of many men, to make a serious effort to look as macho as possible. Homophobia in Serbia is so widespread and homophobes feel so free to express their contempt towards those who don’t share their brutish way of being men that it is very frequent for heterossexual young men to be harrassed for not looking macho enough (this is not to say that all homophobes are men, but usually physical assaults are perpretrated by men). It’s also quite common to find civic-minded individuals being labeled as gay or lesbians as an attempt to discredit them, independently of their real sexual orientation.
Many people (and here I am not restricting myself to Serbia, but speaking generally) tend to dismiss the importance of Pride Parades, viewing them basically as gatherings of excentric people and even qualifying the participants as ‘freaks’ and exhibitionists. But the fact that such events get sucessfully organized all over the developed world reveals the level of adheasion towards the idea of tolerance and civic values more generally, and the fact that such events have been attracting an increasing number of participants, to the point that in some cities they are becoming valuable touristic attractions, reveals not only the level of tolerance, but above all, an important shift in mentalities in which differences no longer bother ‘normal’ people. Usually led and organized by LGTB activists as a way to claim their right to be different, the sucess of such events gives a clear signal to all homossexuals about their status in society, thus allowing them to claim also the right to indifference, meaning not only the right to be tolerated but the duty of society not to act in a discriminatory way.
Thus, Pride Parades and similar are nowadays a valuable measure of the level of autenticity of a given society towards civic values and a very important contribution to reinforce the freedom of expression of each of us, independently of our sexual orientation and of how we wish our sexual orientation to be known by others. This is a recent development, which has taken momentum in the last two decades. Since 2001, Serbia has been lagging behind, while in most european countries we have been witnessing the increasing recognition of equal rights for homossexuals.
The victory of the pro-european option in the elections in May 2008 provided a new opportunity for the civic sector to advance their causes. I had the opportunity to spend time in Belgrade last year in three different moments (February, July and September-October) and could observe how the political environment changed in a positive way once the new government was formed, but also how the reactionary nationalist forces were realigning themselves to face an unfavorable environment.
Clearly, it was in the interest of the government to project the image of positive change in Serbia. As I was told by a member of the NGO Youth Initiative for Human Rights while conducting a research on extreme right youth groups, everytime they thought of organizing any event, they had to bear in mind that there was a chance that it would be disrupted by extremists, but since the current government took office, the attitude of the authorities had changed completely, with real measures being taken to guarantee the security of such events.
The same message was given to LGTB activists, and, while homophobic incidents continued to be frequent, the approval, last March, of a law on non-discrimination which prohibited discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity gave strenght to the idea that Serbia was on the right track. Approved in face of strong opposition of the Serbian ortodox Church and other religious organizations, which unsuccessfully lobbied to have any mention to sexual orientation withdrawn, this law was crutial to meet the requirements of the European Union in order to fulfill the government goal of EU integration. This is a very relevant point. If Serbian citizens have been granted a Visa-free regime, it is, among other things, because the state committed itself to the fight against sexual discrimination. Minority rights don’t benefit only the minorities, they benefit society as a whole, including the sectors that oppose such rights.
During the last two weeks, I had been waiting with excitment for this event to happen. Everyday, Sladjana, my Serbian colleague, and I would engage in discussions about the importance of the Parade for Serbia’s european ambitions. Last week, a series of personalities had publicly given their support to the Pride Parade, and the serbian Ombudsmen declared he would be personally attending the event. While not openly supporting the Parade, the government declared, last Friday, “that state authorities should ensure the free expression of equality and diversity“, and President Boris Tadic reinforced this statement by saying that “the state will do everything to protect all its citizens regardless of their religious, sexual or political affiliation“.
Despite such statements, yesterday the government tried to relocate the Parade, due to be held today at the centre of Belgrade, to the area of Usce, on the periphery of the city, considering that it didn’t have the means to guarantee security otherwise. The organization refused this and instead preferred to cancel the Parade. Apparently, the government failed to grasp the meaning of relocating the Parade from the centre to the periphery of Belgrade. If the Parade aims to fight the marginalization to which the LGTB community is relegated, to have it on the periphery of Belgrade would completely undermine its goal.
The way the government in the end widrew its support reveals its essencial weakness and is paradigmatic of the commitment of the pro-european government towards the civic values that form the core of the european integration project.
The threat to disrupt the Pride parade had been publicly stated by the leaders of extremist groups like Obraz and ‘1389’. As one of ‘1389’ leaders, Misa Vasic, declared to Osservatorio sui Balcani, “We all will be there, us, other patriotic movements like Obraz, the Red Star ‘Delije’, the Partizan ‘Grobari’, even the supporters of the smallest teams in the city (…) We’ll make a front of the ‘sane and normal’ decided to stop the gay parade in Serbia“. Belgrade’s walls were covered by graffittis and posters with threatening messages such as ‘cekamo vas’ (we are waiting for you).(Photo: Blic)
The extremist are not completely dumb and know, unlike the Serbian government that deterrence lies upon the credibility of the will to use force. So, to make sure the message was heard, nothing better than a ‘small’ demonstration. Thus, last Thursday, a group of French supporters of the football club Toulouse were violently attacked by a group of hooligans supporters of Partizan. One of the victims, 28 year old Brice Taton, was seriously wounded and is in critical condition.
The failure of the police to garantee security in the Pride Parade would undoubtedly represent a serious blow in Serbia’s image, and it was better to recognize the state’s powerlessness upon such a threat than to allow violence to happen and people to get injured or killed. But the question is, why preventive measures were not taken?
Furthermore, why is it that a democratic government does not take measures against individuals, groups and organizations that openly threaten to use violence? B92 reports today that calls reemerge for banning extremist organizations, including by Belgrade’s mayor Dragan Djilas. But why haven’t these organizations been banned already?
If Serbia’s pro-european government is to take a meaningful lesson from this episode is that Serbia cannot progress into the european path as long it doesn’t tackle the roots of intolerance, and that means openly adressing and refuting the heavy legacy of nationalism upon which these groups build their strenght.
UPDATE: 28 year old french citizen Brice Taton died today from his injuries.