The first time Kristine Garina attended EuroPride, the largest LGBTQ event in Europe, it was in a post-Communist state that didn’t exactly have a reputation for being a bastion of LGBTQ rights. But even though Garina says she expected the 2010 event in Warsaw, Poland to be “really bad,” it was ultimately a success—becoming one of the largest Pride marches of its kind in the country’s history. She helped to bring EuroPride back home in Latvia five years later.
Garina, president of European Pride Organizers Association is bringing EuroPride this week to Belgrade, Serbia, which will be the 30th anniversary of EuroPride and the first time it has made its way across Europe. But there is one problem: Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić announced last month that Serbia would no longer host the week-long event, citing among other reasons right-wing threats. Although past Pride events were held in Belgrade with no incidents, violence has also occurred between police officers and far-right groups. The worst was in 2010. A decision on whether this weekend’s Pride march will be allowed to go ahead is expected on Tuesday.
EuroPride’s organizers have vowed to press on regardless, noting that the event is not the center-right leader’s to cancel. “We are still going ahead because there is no formal ban,” says Garina, adding that she has every faith in the Serbian authorities’ ability to ensure that the festivities proceed smoothly and safely. “I find it quite ironic that I have all the faith in Serbian police and their President doesn’t.”
With organizers expecting thousands of participants to arrive in Belgrade this week ahead of Saturday’s EuroPride march through the city, the Serbian government’s attempted cancellation—and the organizers’ persistence to see the celebrations through—sets the scene for what could be a showdown between EuroPride goers and far-right counter-protesters in one of Europe’s worst-performing countries in terms of LGBTQ rights.
Serbia, in some ways was always going be a risky EuroPride choice. Unlike Barcelona and Dublin, which lost their hosting bids to Belgrade in 2019, Serbia’s standing when it comes to LGBTQ rights has been lackluster. According to Civil Rights Defenders (a Stockholm-based human right organization), homosexuality is considered a disease in Serbia, and it’s illegal for same-sex couples to marry. Although Serbia reached a historic milestone in 2017 with the appointment of Ana Brnabić, the country’s first lesbian Prime Minister—who was both nominated by President Vučić to preside over the cabinet and elected by the Serbian parliament—it has done little to improve the rights of its LGBTQ community since. “It just proves that being LGBT in a high position is not enough for equality,” says Garina. “You actually have to do something as well.” (Brnabić’s office did not respond to a request for comment.)
In the weeks leading up to EuroPride, thousands of people have joined religious and nationalist protests against the festival and senior figures of the Serbian Orthodox Church have condemned the event for “desecrating the holy city of Belgrade.” More protests are expected in the coming days. But the way EuroPride’s organizers and supporters see it, these factors make the festival more necessary, not less. “EuroPride is a lighthouse event for the whole queer community in Europe because the situation of LGBTI rights is not completely homogenous across Europe,” says Terry Reintke, a German lawmaker and co-chair of the LGBTI group in the European Parliament, who plans on attending Saturday’s Pride march in Belgrade. Reintke along with the other 144 European Parliament members urged Serbian to fulfill its pledge to host EuroPride. Reintke also reminded Belgrade that it has to make sure the safety of participants.
“In instances like this, it is so important for the community to stand together and say we are not going to back off,” says Rientke. Whereas yielding to the government’s efforts to cancel the event would feel like caving to far-right nationalist demands, she adds, holding EuroPride in spite of them “would be such a signal of hope.”
However, the only sign coming from Serbian authorities so far is confusion. No bans have been placed on EuroPride despite the fact that it cancelled EuroPride last month. Any efforts to do so in the coming days will almost certainly be appealed by EuroPride’s organizers. The festivities are already underway, with an opening ceremony which saw the Pride flag being raised above the Palace of Serbia. However, no representative of the Serbian government attended. Organizers are already bracing for thousands of attendees from across the continent—thanks, in part, to the Serbian government. “People are outraged and angry and people want to go out on the street and express that emotion,” says Garina. As for Vučić’s threats of cancellation: “It’s promotion that money can’t buy.”
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