EuroPride, an international pride event that takes place every year in a different European city, will take place from September 12 to 18 in the Serbian capital, Belgrade.
This marks the first time the event will be held in the Balkan region.
If you consult the Foreign Affairs Travel app before departure, you will find under the heading ‘Tips from the embassy’ only one piece of advice: ‘Homosexuality is not widely accepted in Serbia. Keep that in mind.’
It is clear that EuroPride in Belgrade will have a different interpretation than in previous host cities such as Vienna, Madrid and Amsterdam – Pride parades in Belgrade have occasionally degenerated into riots.
Nowadays, the police hermetically seal off the area where the pride procession takes place, so that the event can take place in a relatively safe manner.
To get a better idea of how the event will look like this year, we spoke to two Serbian activists and a board member of EPOA, the European Pride Organisers Association.
After the political reforms in 2000, when Serbia became a democracy, there was hope that the situation for the LGBTQ community would improve. Activists who already spoke out about human rights in the 1980s considered the time in June 2001 to be the right time to organise a pride in the Balkan region for the first time. There were less than a hundred activists on their feet and the police were completely unprepared. Hundreds of right-wing extremists and hooligans attacked the pride march. The shocking and violent images that were seen on the news were etched in the collective memory. It would take years before a second pride was organised.
It was originally planned for 2004, but the government could not guarantee safety that year, so the event was cancelled. Only in 2010 did another pride take place, this time with the cooperation of the government. Some 600 activists were protected by as many as 10,000 police officers. The city was in lockdown, there were tanks on the streets and there were about ten thousand hooligans on their feet. While the parade was well-secured, riots erupted throughout the city with extensive damage to public buildings, prompting the government to ban the pride parade from 2011 to 2013. Although Serbia’s Supreme Court declared the ban unconstitutional in 2011, it was not lifted. In the following years, the parade was banned at the last minute. In 2013, the organisation had had enough. The participants were called upon to hold a procession in protest at midnight. The following year, the government finally lifted the ban, and Belgrade Pride has been held annually since then – with the exception of 2020, when it was not possible due to the pandemic.
Pride coordinator Marko Mihailovi got involved with Belgrade Pride in 2016. In 2019, the members of the European Pride Organisers Association (EPOA) – made up of pride organisers from more than thirty European countries – determined which city will be allowed to host EuroPride in 2022.
During the selection procedure, the organisers of Belgrade Pride saw Barcelona as the biggest competitor.
“Their pride is completely different: it attracts millions of visitors,” says Mihailovi. “In addition, the LGBTQ community in Spain has much more rights: everyone can get married there, there are adoption schemes and so on. During their presentation, the pride delegation from Barcelona shouted something along the lines of: ‘With us, every day feels like EuroPride’, to which someone in the audience rightly remarked: ‘But why is it still important that you host EuroPride?’”
During their presentation, the Belgrade Pride delegation showed images of the disastrous pride from 2001, then showed how the situation has improved since then, but also stressed that the country still has a long way to go. The result: Belgrade Pride won with more than seventy percent of the vote.
Mihailovi hopes that the EuroPride in his city will attract many tourists:
“With this event, we can show the LGBTQ community around the world that the battle is not yet won. It’s nice that you can be openly LGBTQ in your own city, but there are still plenty of cities around the world where the community is oppressed and where the struggle for equality continues. Showing solidarity is essential. We want to show the rest of the world what we struggle with. Our struggle has been going on for twenty years, and we still don’t have equal rights. We hope that EuroPride will bring extra visibility and momentum, and that the position of LGBTQ people will improve not only in Serbia but throughout the Western Balkans. This potentially also brings economic, democratic and political benefits.”
Despite the fact that Belgrade banned the actual pride procession for years, other pride activities have been taking place since 2011. Pride Week is getting bigger and bigger: last year there were 80 events throughout the city, including debates, exhibitions, theatre performances, film screenings and of course parties. Since 2018, a major concert has taken place after the parade. The police deployment decreased, the number of visitors increased. In 2019, for the first time there were more participants than police officers.
It is not possible to just go to the parade: there are specific access points, through which security will be assessed if you pass. Mihailovi admits that he would like to see things change.
“It sometimes means that people who want to participate in the pride are not admitted. Because the security of Belgrade Pride requires so much police force, officers from outside Belgrade are also flown in, who are often even more conservative and therefore less helpful.”
According to Mihailovi, the organisation could also use more cooperation from the police.
“We make sure that they are fully informed about our plans, but only hear on the day of the event how big their commitment will be and where the access points will be.”
With more eyes on Belgrade this year because of EuroPride, Mihailovi hopes for better cooperation with government agencies.
“After all, the government does not want to be embarrassed and will undoubtedly use EuroPride to show how EU-friendly Serbia is. It is now said that the government is doing all kinds of things to improve human rights in the country, but in practice little is done.”
Mihailovi is convinced that tourists who visit EuroPride don’t have to worry about their safety.
“Belgrade can’t afford bad PR should something happen to one of the visitors. Of course there are things you should not do: I would really advise against walking hand in hand or kissing your partner in the street. We will provide information to Pride visitors so they know what to look out for.”
Steve Taylor, board member at EPOA, underlines Mihailovi’s position.
“We have urged the Belgrade Pride organisation to make it clear in their communication that it is not a ‘party pride’. It’s not like Pride Amsterdam, where you can walk hand in hand with your boyfriend through the city. You have to be really careful. Prepare well, think about the best way to get from A to B in the city.”
Taylor is not surprised that a majority of the votes during the EuroPride selection procedure went to Belgrade.
“Hopefully EuroPride will help them make Belgrade Pride a more public event, requiring less security. It’s about time this pride was no longer automatically associated with riots. That would already be a huge improvement.”
Nikola Planojevic is a data coordinator at Da Se Zna (loosely translated: ‘show it’), an organisation that has been keeping track of how many hate crimes are committed in Serbia against the queer community since 2017. He also advises some vigilance.
“During the last edition of Belgrade Pride, everything went smoothly during the parade and subsequent parties, but we received reports that visitors were being harassed on the streets and on public transport afterwards. Especially if they had visibly taken part in the parade – for example, if they were carrying a rainbow flag.”
However, Planojevic also expects that visitors will not be in serious danger.
Da Se Zna offers victims of hate crimes legal advice, assists victims if they want to report and links them to victim support if necessary. In addition, the organisation provides information and workshops. From the figures, Da Se Zna sees that things are getting better with the Serbian queer community, albeit in small steps.
“In Belgrade, the number of violent attacks has declined in recent years,” said Planojevic. “There are now officers at certain police stations who are specifically trained to record reports of anti-LGBTQ violence. However, the contrast between the acceptance in Belgrade and Novi Sad – Serbia’s second city – and the rest of the country is great. Outside those two cities, there are hardly any places or organisations where queer people can go.”
Pride coordinator Mihailovi also sees that the situation is improving little by little.
“When I went to clubs as a teenager, it was quite normal for hooligans to be waiting for you at the exit to beat you up. Tear gas bombs were also regularly thrown inside. Such situations are unimaginable today. We see queer characters more and more in Serbian TV series who are not portrayed as clowns, but who lead normal lives. There is indeed progress.”
In 2017, the openly lesbian Ana Brnabi became Prime Minister.
“Having a lesbian prime minister has contributed greatly to the visibility of our community…” adds Mihailovi. “At the same time, she has barely done anything for us.”
The Serbian government has been discussing cohabitation contracts for same-sex couples for years. When President Aleksandar Vui said in a televised interview last year that he would not sign such a bill because he considers it unconstitutional, those talks came to a halt.
“We are told that after the elections in April the bill will be discussed again, but I have a hard head about it,” says Mihailovi.
Meanwhile, Belgrade Pride continues to develop.
“Over the years, I see that increasingly younger visitors come to our event,” says Mihailovi. “I think that is a good development: it shows that queer young people and their allies are increasingly daring to show themselves.”
In the past, it was difficult for the organisation to secure commercial sponsors.
“But now that we’re hosting EuroPride, companies like IKEA know where to find us,” says Mihailovi, beaming. “Many local companies also want to join in for the first time this year, which is nice to see. I understand that our fight for equality requires a lot of patience, but I expect that EuroPride will give us a big push in the right direction. So far we have not attracted more than three thousand visitors with Belgrade Pride, but I predict that we will go over ten thousand with EuroPride.”
Mihailovi especially hopes that potential visitors to EuroPride in Belgrade will not be discouraged by the activist nature of the Pride.
“If you have the opportunity to attend, come. Belgrade as a destination is very affordable, the weather in September is beautiful, there are handsome men, good food and an interesting history. It is so important to us that people outside Serbia come to EuroPride and show their solidarity with us. We have to show that we are there, that we are oppressed, and that we cannot go on like this. There are so many young people who are bullied, who run away from home and who are subject to violence. The more visitors that come to EuroPride, the louder our voice becomes, and the better we can show that we too deserve equal rights.”
Original reporting by Winq.nl (reproduced with permission)