Many have considered the Pride festival in Belgrade 2015 a success, mainly due to the lack of violence. However, very few people actually got to see the parade. Between the citizen of Serbia´s capital and the rainbow colored flags stood thousands of riot police.
I woke up in my bunk bed and immediately realized that the city outside had gone silent and so had the hostel I was staying in. I looked through the barred windows in the hope of finding any sign of city life but saw nothing. The hostel had been far from crowded during my stay, but now even the staff were gone.
It was Sunday the 20th of September and today was the grand finale of Serbia’s Pride week. I was expecting to see boys run hand in hand with other boys, girls hand in hand with other girls and so many rainbows that leprechauns would jump out of every basement. Instead it became apparent that I had woken up in some kind of post apocalyptic world.
I did a quick search online and soon found out that the whole city center had gone into lock down since eight o´clock in the morning. No pedestrians, cars, or public transportation were allowed into the city center. All this to insure that the parade would take place without any violent incidents. This explained why the city had gone quiet, but why was the front door locked?
Serbia’s modern history is in many ways a bloody one. Many of the citizens of Belgrade have witnessed some of Europe’s most destructive moments since the cold war. For example the Kosovo war which lead to the bombing of the capital by The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO. The lockdown came to remind Marijana, who owns the hostel, of more dramatic days.
“I was on the streets during the riots against our current president Slobodan Milošević in the year 2000. There were tanks rolling down the streets, but at least you could get from one point to another. In some ways, this is worse!” Marijana told me over the phone. And that she could not get to the hostel to unlock the door.
She lives on the other side of the river Donau and drives to work every morning for her shift. This Sunday she called the hostel to tell the man who had the nightshift that he could go home a bit early since she would be there in ten minutes. But just to be safe, she asked him to lock the front door. She soon realized her error.
“I´m so sorry. I tried talking to the police but they all tell me that even if they let me through the first barrier that they have set up around the parade, there are several more that I have to pass before I can get to the hostel. So they won´t let me through the first one… and they don’t even know how long this will last!”
Goran Miletic is the Programme Director for Western Balkans at Civil Rights Defenders, and was part of the organizing Committee for the Belgrade Pride this year. He pointed out that the number of police officers is not something that the organizers can influence, but also that the numbers of police officers deployed did not surprise him, stating that, the number where even higher last year.
“We expect that number to shrink every year, but it will be a process. Their decision is still influenced by the fact that we experienced a lot of violence during the Pride parade in 2010,” he wrote in an email.
2010 was a bad year for the Belgrade Pride parade. A large number of hooligans showed up and completely ruined the parade. There were clashes with the police, and the office of the ruling Democratic Party was briefly set on fire. Around a hundred people got injured, many of them police officers, and another hundred got arrested. No Pride parades were allowed in Belgrade during the following three years and the attacks still haunts the parade to this day.
Who thought that being locked into your hostel is a great way to meet local people? Well, after a lot of shouting through the window, ten minutes of gesticulating, and a lot of good will from a fellow human being who happened to be passing, I managed to get out. By then, the press meeting was over and I would not be let through the iron curtains that had been drawn between me and the Pride parade I was supposed to cover.
Despite the high temperature, no warmth or love could be felt in the city. The only thing one found were riot police and bystanders that were trying to find a way to get around the barricades.
The only crowd I could find was by Saint Mark´s Church. There a mix of citizens and journalists had gathered around a group of pride-skeptical members of the Eastern Orthodox Church, armed with signs and a megaphone which they used as if their own salvation was at stake.
One of the protest sign said “Orthodox Christians against public exhibitionism of god-hating Sodom sin”. Another proclaimed that if this is the way into the European Union, EU, the cost is way too high.
Serbia has for some time tried to balance its relations with the EU on the one hand, and Russian on the other. In the center of this political balancing act stands Serbia´s prime minister
Aleksandar Vučić, president of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS); a political party that, despite its name, is ideologically national conservative and was founded by members from the Serbian Radical Party.
The human rights organization Amnesty International reported that the parade were held “under the watchful eye of the EU”. Aleksandar Vučić knows that the Pride parade is important if Serbia wants to become a member of the EU. But that doesn´t mean that he has to be supportive of the event himself.
”As far as I am concerned I will not attend those parades. It is my right. I was not there last year, I will not attend it next year either, neither as a Prime Minister nor as a citizen. I have something else to do at the time. But state institutions must ensure that every citizen feels secure and that is a European standard,” said Vucic to the Serbian press.
During the Yugoslav wars when NATO bombed Serbia Aleksandar Vučić served as minister of information under president Slobodan Milosevic, who would later be accused of war crimes and genocide connected to the massacre in Srebrenica where thousands of Muslim Bosniacs were slaughtered. However, Milosevic died in his cell before he could be put on trial.
Four years after Slobodan Milosevic´s death Aleksandar Vuči made a political U-turn. He suddenly expressed remorse about his political past and became pro-EU. Today the SNS hold 131 of 251 seats in National Assembly, with the second largest party holding only 25.
There hasn´t been any more riots since Aleksandar Vuči became prime minister and stability has become something of his political mantra. But not everyone is impressed.
“He got a lot of support from the hooligans while he was in opposition and therefore they don’t interfere with the parade. By showing that he can maintain order in the streets, he also displays power,” said Jovanka Todorovic. She is the project manager and something of a spokesperson for Labris, one of Serbia’s most prominent LGBT-rights organizations.
I met Jovanka a couple of weeks before the parade in an apartment in Belgrade that also houses Labris’ office. To find the office you almost need to know what you are looking for. The secrecy of the organization is not surprising, since the organization and its members regularly receives violent threats.
“I´m sorry about the light, we are about to move,” she said and offered me a chair in a dimly lit room.
In many ways it´s the typical office for an organization that is run by a handful of volunteers: nothing fancy, everything is there for a reason and the walls are covered with posters and folders made during past campaigns.
“Do you take milk with your coffee?” she asked me. Interesting. They have electricity for the refrigerator, but not for the lamps. How does that work? I quietly asked myself when I heard her curse about ice in the milk.
“Black is fine!”
Back at the table she tells me about what it is like to work to support the rights for people in the LGBT-community in Serbia today. It is soon abundantly clear that neither the prime minster, nor the ruling party, is considered a supporter of human rights by Labris.
“We have an ongoing dialogue with them, of course, but we do not make any compromises that would be bad for us. We feel more independent this way,” she told me. She explains that their financial support comes mainly from political institutions, and human rights organizations outside of Serbia.
“In Serbia, like in many other countries, the extreme right is present everywhere, on all levels. But we can’t just sit with our arms folded and say that nothing can be done.”
And a lot has been done by Labris. Homophobia is a problem in Serbia. This shows for example in some educational material for high school students, were homosexuality has been listed as a sexual disease. By conducting its own surveys and collecting information Labris highlights problems like this and presents it to the people in charge, in this case the minister of education.
Another field where homophobia has repeatedly been a problem is among the police. Labris has therefore been working with the police department for two years and educates police officers, prosecutors and even judges about discrimination against LGBT-persons.
“The police are not always aware of their contribution to discrimination, which is why education is so important,” she said and adds that hate crimes are mainly committed by teenagers.
Most economic support for Labris comes from abroad, the organization must also look overseas to find public persons, celebrities and role models that are openly gay.
“We need a politician, an artist, or even a journalist who is openly gay. Someone! In Serbia there is no one and we have to invite people that are gay from the US for events and seminars. And since I´m straight I can’t take that role,” said Jovanka raising her arms in a defensive posture and smiles.
Although this year´s Pride parade might not have managed to attract the Serbian prime minister, the minister of Culture- and democracy of Sweden flew in and was seen dancing and carrying a rainbow flag. This, of course, could only be witnessed directly by the hundreds of activist that managed to join the parade and by the thousands of police officers deployed to protect them.
Holy water was poured on the street by the representatives of the Eastern Orthodox Church as they cleansed the street after the Pride parade. They blamed the LGBT-community for the natural disasters that have struck Serbia, while they swung a censer filled with smoking incense back and forth. The blockade had been lifted and once more could you walk along the main street and take the tram.
“I just wish they could have the parade outside of the city center where they wouldn´t bother anyone. Why do they have to rub their sexuality in everyone’s face and create such a fuss? You´re gay, so what? I just want to get around in my own city! As did everyone else in the tram I was in,” said Marijana when I met her in the afternoon.
So why create so much fuss?
Threats and attacks against LGBTI rights defenders and organizations, including the Gay-Straight Alliance, were not effectively investigated, and hate motive was seldom recognized, writes Amnesty International about Serbia in its yearly report from 2014/2015. The Belgrade Center for Human Rights comes to the same conclusion in their yearly report.
On the television in the background I watched as scenes from the parade were broadcast on the evening news. Huge flags were carried by people celebrating the opportunity to openly show their fellow countrymen- and women that they are proud of who they are, and who they love.
Then the scene shifted and once more I saw the members of the church, and the endless line of riot shields. I had to ask myself, could the Pride parade actually be counterproductive for the LGBT-community? Could it harm the public opinion towards LGBT-rights?
I asked Goran Miletic from the organizing Committee if he found it problematic that the public could not join or even witness the Pride parade.
“The situation is tricky. Of course we want observers, but having the threats in mind, we must find the right balance between security and visibility. Security is our number one priority. We made this compromise with the hope that we will be able to have more observers in the coming years and that such measures will not be needed in the future,” he said. He ended the email by letting me know that every year more and more people recognize that they do know someone in the LGBT-community.
Hopefully I won´t need it; but just in case I will bring binoculars next year. And lock picks.
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