Fates and Choices
Anja Radonjic (LGBTQIA+)
Edited by Elizabeth Rose
Of the proud and the prideful : Belgrade Prides as a moment of socio-political reflection for the Western Balkans
A few Octobers ago, while I was still in Sixth Form in the UK, one of my best friends came out to me. We had just turned seventeen, and moved away from the small towns and the associated social expectations. In the moments between the hugs and tears, and “I love yous”, I realised the world shifted – I had a person in my life whose simple existence is despised by unnamed strangers, by dogmas, by political opportunists. None of the people I knew back in Montenegro – not a distant family member, neighbour, classmate, or acquaintance – was an openly gay person.
Across the Western Balkans, we pride ourselves on upholding traditions, we are consumed by our own complicated, intertwined and unique histories. In the years after the Balkan civil wars of the 1990s, each Balkan state made progress (or at least is working on it) in the realm of equal rights, administration of justice and social reforms, all relative to the country’s political motivations to either improve their relations with the EU, or with Russia/and China. While laws and institutions might become more inclusive, the changing of minds and hearts takes decades, especially if those same minds and hearts are tethered by patriarchal structures and growing theoretical control. Because of the intangibility of these two forces within the Balkan society, the LGBTQIA+ community across the Western Balkans has had their existence and experience denied, threatened and, essentially, erased. Facilitation of Pride and contestation that often follows is fundamental for the future of Western Balkan society and identity. In this way, Pride serves as a reminder of the undeniable existence of queer people (despite the efforts of many far-right individuals and religious extremists to insist otherwise). But the local and state level reactions to its organisation also serves as a moment of truth – we come to realise whether social norms and expectations can change, whether we are willing to change, for every brother, sister, daughter and son that treads carefully during the parade. Such a moment for societal self-reflection and revelation came on the 17th of September this year, when Belgrade’s EuroPride was scheduled to take place.
The roads less taken
Security concerns surrounding pride and ban on gathering is unfortunately a common pattern in the history of Serbia’s Pride parades. In 2001, what was meant to be the first Pride in the Western Balkans, turned into a bloody showdown between the police and anti-pride protesters. It took another nine years before Pride was organised in Belgrade, and the outcry against it was similar; a mere thousand Pride participants were shielded from six thousand anti-Pride protesters, and around 200 police officers and civilians injured. Pride was then banned until 2014. Since 2014, each year Pride has been held (until the pandemic) under the close supervision of the police.
I would be unfair, and careless, if I said the LGBTQIA+ community has received no support, and that it solely relies on police protection. The conversations surrounding the experiences and needs of the queer community have been changing in Serbia, and for the most part, for the better. Over the years, Serbia’s Pride associations have gathered more allies and supporters (who, through association, have also been targeted online). The use of social media platforms like Twitter to demonstrate support has proved to be a double-edged sword – it has become easier to gather support, and easier to share videos of any violations of gay rights (for example, video evidence has resulted in the first hate crime conviction in Serbia, in 2018). But, unfortunately, it has also been a platform for Dveri, a far-right group, that works tirelessly to “defend” their families and traditional Serbian values- with the same vigour and zeal of Don Quixote, who fought the imaginary dangers posed by the windmills . They are predominantly Serbian Orthodox Christian followers, who taunt and threaten anyone associated with Pride. It is because of wide-spread video sharing, that this years’ Europride in Belgarde was preceded by a large-scale anti-Pride protest march.
Two marches, two Serbian peoples
Perhaps this Europride would have happened without much attention, if it weren’t for the public attacks of Archbishop Profirije, the leader of Serbian Orthodox Church, on the dangers of queer lifestyle to the traditional values in Serbia, their sins that supposedly endanger the very nature of Serbian peoples. In one of his addresses, with great zealous rage, he delcared: “if I had weapons, I would kill them (gay people).” The Serbian Orthodox Church has a long record in both Serbia and Montenegro for referring to the LGBTQIA+ community as “human faeces'', “the diseased” , “foreign fabrications”, which naturally encourages the far-right groups to act in a violent manner, enabling them to do so with no accountability. No one has been persecuted for these statements. The recurrent scrutiny and negation of Pride has elicited statements from internationally recognised Serbian public figures, such as actor Viktor Savic, singers Ana Nikolic and Aca Lukas, leaders from political movements like Bosko Obradovic from Dveri (all of whom have a great public presence). On the 27th of August, the concerns for Serbia and Serbian values were expressed in a widespread anti-Pride protest, which thousands attended. The “protectors of families and children” marched with religious flags, crosses, and pictures of Vladimir Putin, and Draza Mihailovic (leader of the Chetnik faction during the Second World War). It is incredibly ironic to see banners with phrases like “keep your hands away from our children” being held by members of the SOC accused of pedophilia. President Aleksandar Vucic used the anti-Pride march, alongside the growing tensions with Kosovo that week, as an excuse to “cancel or indefinitely delay” Pride. Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, first openly gay PM for Serbia and the region, also conceded that cancelling Pride is better, over safety concerns for those who might march.
The EuroPride would probably have remained cancelled, had it not attracted the attention of the international community. More than 20 embassies, including that of the U.S, UK, and France, issued a joint statement urging for the EuroPride to go ahead as planned. Eleven hours before the event, President Vucic lifted the ban: a shorter route, heavy police monitoring, and 64 arrests marked the 17th of September. Videos are currently circulating on Twitter with anti-Pride protestors taunting the Pride participants, allies and community members alike; in one, a young woman got kicked from the back by a cowardly young man, yelling “this is my hood, this is my turf”.
Unfortunately, this is the reality Serbians find themselves in. Although the degrees of tensions vary in other Western Balkans states, there are similarities to be drawn from Pride marches held in Montenegro, and in Bosnia (also candidates for the European Union, like Serbia). The main aggravators and catalysts for violence seem to be the speeches and addresses of religious leaders, and consequently, leaders of far-right groups that use their words as a guiding dogma for their violent deeds. I would say this is nothing new; it’s almost a universal context for anti-gay protests. However, I think it's the lack of ordinary citizens’ interest, whether indifference or fear, to stand with the LGBTQIA+ community, in their respective country in the Western Balkans. You can often hear phrases like “ I have nothing against them, but why do they need to march?” ; “ I have nothing against them, but do it in your own four walls.” This is still anti-gay rhetoric, whether those speaking wish to cause the queer community harm or not. Indifference is erasure; indifference is harmful. I think one of the characteristics that Western Balkan people like to pride themselves in, is their hospitality, and “wearing their hearts on their sleeves”. The Balkan paradox is the incessant chatter of opinions (on anything and everything), while the truest emotions and questions remain buried deep within; asking questions would mean not having answers, and those who do not have answers are not eligible for opinions. Instead, we pretend, and nod along knowledgeably. No one asks why do we need Pride. No one asks a gay person in the Balkans how they want to structure their life. It is not about, or it should not be about, the country’s political and economic affiliation with the European Union, or with Russia. It is about elemental decency. It is about humanity, respect towards another human being, and ultimately, loving all the people in your local community.
Bravery is a deeply admirable trait that so many display by living their truths in the Western Balkans. But I hope one day, no one has to be brave. I hope allies, political and judicial institutions, and further education on the topic, ensures queer people have a dignified life, and are free to live it to the fullest.
Relevant Twitter accounts ( in Serbian/Croatian)
@mosimisemac - Montenegrin PR, Political Commentator, Mportal editor
Stevan Filipovic, @SejtanovRadnik - Professor at Faculty of Dramatic Arts, Pride participant
Bosko Obradovic, @BoskoObradovic - Leader of Dveri, useful to read his tweets for the rhetoric that gets deployed in order to undermine the need for Pride
Unfortunately, 99% of tweets are in Serbian, so makes it difficult to use as references etc. :(