As It Happens

Serbia's president has cancelled EuroPride. Organizers say people will march anyway

People will march in a pan-European pride parade in Serbia later this month whether the president likes it or not, says one of the event’s organizers.

Belgrade set to host this year's pan-European event, Serbian president says security risk too high

A man in a pink shirt and black suit jacket stands in profile with his arms folded over his chest, his head turned toward the camera with a serious expression. Behind him is a large painting of a statue holding a rainbow flag.
Goran Miletic is one of organizers of EuroPride in Serbia. He says the visibility that comes with Pride events is the key to making progress for LGBTQ people. (Vesna Lalic/Belgrade Pride/Civil Rights Defenders)

Story Transcript

People will march in a pan-European pride parade in Serbia later this month whether the president likes it or not, says one of the event's organizers.

The Serbian capital of Belgrade is hosting this year's EuroPride, an annual celebration of all things LGBTQ that culminates in a parade on Sept. 17. 

But President Aleksandar Vucic surprised the community on Saturday when he announced on TV that the parade would be either cancelled or postponed, citing political turmoil, economic strain and threats from right-wing extremists.

"I think it was a big shock for all of us in the LGBT community in Serbia because we never heard that something like this might happen," Goran Miletic, one of the event's Serbian organizers, told As It Happens guest host Katie Simpson.

"Us, as organizers, were having a lot of meetings with the government, with city hall, with the police and they never mentioned something like this."

The announcement has drawn widespread condemnation from human rights organizations, including the United Nations, and was followed by a large anti-EuroPride protest in Belgrade on Sunday.

Miletic still holds hope the government will walk back the announcement, but says that no matter what happens, people will take to the streets as planned.

"I cannot imagine that people will not march," he said.

Why the sudden cancellations?

In his announcement, Vucic cited the political crisis with Serbia's former province of Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008, and economic problems facing the country amid Russia's war in Ukraine. 

He also said threats from right-wing activists posed a security threat that Belgrade isn't equipped to handle.

The UN office in Serbia condemned the decision, warning it will jeopardize "the right to freedom of assembly as guaranteed by the Serbian Constitution."

"The EuroPride is also an opportunity to celebrate the foundations of a strong and progressive society based on social equity, equality of all rights, solidarity, friendship and love," Francoise Jacob, the UN resident co-ordinator in Serbia, said.

A man in a suit and glasses, visible from the shoulders up, looks off to one side, his mouth agape.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic cited political strife, economic woes and right-wing threats when he announced the cancellation of the EuroPride parade in Belgrade. (Zorana Jevtic/Reuters)

Others have questioned whether Vucic even has the authority to ban the parade. Miletic says such a decision is fundamentally unconstitutional. 

Civic Democratic leader Zoran Vuletic said in a statement that the party wanted to remind Vucic "that he cannot cancel an event that he did not schedule and that he cannot, according to the constitution, prohibit the gathering of people."

Anti-EuroPride protests

Members of the European Pride Organizers Association chose Serbia's capital three years ago to host EuroPride, hoping it would represent a major breakthrough for a Slavic country that is traditionally conservative and under a strong influence from the Orthodox Church.

Serbia is formally seeking European Union membership, but has for years had strong connections with Russia. The Balkan country has voted for UN resolutions condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine, but has refused to join Western sanctions against Moscow.

A front-on view of dozens of men, women and children walking through the streets holding crosses and other religious iconography. Two men are featured prominently in the front.
People protest against EuroPride in Belgrade on Sunday. (Zorana Jevtic/Reuters)

The day after Vucic's announcement, thousands of religious and right-wing opponents of EuroPride marched in the streets of Belgrade holding crosses and other Christian symbols, and shouting pro-Russia and anti-LGBTQ slogans.

The protest was held during a procession to mark a religious holiday, was led by clergy from the Serbian Orthodox Church, some of whose bishops say the Pride event threatens traditional family values and should be banned.

"Save our children and family," read one of the banners held up by protesters.

Despite the show of force, Miletic says EuroPride should go on. Events like it, he says, are necessary for the safety and well-being of LGBTQ people in Serbia, many of whom, he says, face discrimination or violence at work and school.

"The key step in order to solve the problem is visibility. If you want to deal with discrimination and violence, you need to show that we exist. We should not be invisible anymore," he said.

"When we are visible, then our problems become visible. And that is happening often ... around Pride every year, because we are getting more attention, more visibility in media, more people on the streets seeing … that we are their neighbours, their friends, their peers."

Progress is possible, says Miletic

Miletic says he believes progress is possible because he's seen it first hand. In 1992, at the age of 20, he joined the country's first LGBTQ rights organization, Arcadia.

"In that moment, homosexuality was banned, was forbidden by criminal code, and, you know, we were afraid that police will enter a premises and that they will  arrest us as gay men," he said.

A close-up shot of several dozen people, many holding rainbow fans or sporting rainbow paint on their faces. One person holds a large rainbow flag with two interlinked symbols female symbols. Each symbol is a circle with a cross on the bottom.
Revellers take part in the LGBT Rainbow Parade during the EuroPride in Vienna, Austria, in 2019. (Lisi Niesner/Reuters)

Since then, he's been witness to changes that he says nobody would have believed possible. In 2002, the country prohibited the broadcast of anti-LGBTQ hate speech. In 2005, Serbia passed laws banning discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment and higher education. Legislation recognizing same-sex civil unions is currently making its way through the legislature.

"So my personal feeling is that progress is possible, but we need to be persistent. We need a lot of solidarity from many countries," Miletic said. "Everything is possible if you have a group of committed people."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press and Reuters. Interview with Goran Miletic produced by Morgan Passi.

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