Serbia Backtracks on LGBTIQ Rights

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić’s announcement in August that the upcoming EuroPride would be “banned” in Belgrade invited a surge in anti-LGBTIQ sentiment that local activists worry may have erased years of progress in the Balkan country.

September 17 was supposed to mark the first EuroPride held in the Balkans, a major milestone when pride marches in Belgrade and other Balkan capitals were repeatedly shut down or threatened with violence over the past twenty years. Serbian authorities did ultimately allow a gathering to take place, but failed to safeguard fundamental rights to free expression and assembly. And they may have turned back the clock on LGBTIQ equality simply by signaling a willingness to trade away fundamental rights for political gain.

“We just realized that regardless of all the work that we have done in the last ten years, just one word brought us back to rightwing oriented rallies, the church being so vocal [in opposition to]LGBTIQ+ community …, violence and fear, one word — ‘banned,’” said Jelena Vasiljević of Rainbow Ignite in a message to Outright. “Regardless of our constitutional rights, regardless of our families and friends, regardless of the laws, we are banned.”

The Serbian government played a dangerous game in the weeks leading up to EuroPride. After European leaders protested President Vučić’s decision to ban EuroPride, his hand-picked prime minister, Ana Brnabić, backpedaled, saying it was “more of a request” to LGBTIQ activists that they not walk. Brnabić, who is a lesbian, appeared at EuroPride 2022’s International Human Rights Conference on September 13, telling the audience, “I am pushing the boundaries by at least a meter, you do the same and things will be equal for everyone, stop criticizing. I have given myself no other right than what you have and that is not a lot of rights. I did not get married.”

That same day, the Interior Ministry reaffirmed that EuroPride was banned. It was only on the morning that the parade was due to take place that Brnabić announced a dramatically scaled-down event would be allowed. 

The politicians said they wanted the march called off because of broader security concerns amidst tensions with Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008 but is not recognized by Belgrade. But critics widely saw Vučić’s move as a cynical play for support on the far right.

Anti-LGBTIQ forces took advantage of the opening Vučić had given them. Anti-LGBTIQ protesters took to the streets. Religious and nationaist factions marched together a week before the planned EuroPride in a demonstration “for marriage and the family.” On the day of EuroPride itself, two far-right groups attempted to disrupt the gathering, reportedly resulting in 10 injured police officers and 64 arrests. LGBTIQ activists reported several other attacks occurred around the city surrounding EuroPride. 

“There [were] a lot of attacks that happened. Which has not happened in a long time. This entire event unfortunately showed us that we are still rather marginalized and unwanted in our own country.” Maja Šenk of the Serbian organization Labris wrote in an email to Outright. “I think the state failed the LGBTI community. They created this atmosphere of fear and uncertainty.”

“We, the LGBTIQ+ community in Serbia will need time to recuperate from this,” said Rainbow Ignite’s Vasilijević. So much progress had been made in recent years that LGBTIQ activists believed they were close to passing a partnership law, and were talking about pushing for gender recognition legislation. 

Everything seemed “great and we are managing somehow to function and live with the bright future ahead,” she said. “Fast-forward to the end of August 2022 and [it] all starts to crumble, one statement [from Vučić] made all the difference.”