EuroPride Week Starts In Belgrade Under Cloud Of Official Ban, Threats From Religious And Nationalist Groups

BELGRADE -- Organizers of a pan-European LGBT event scheduled for Belgrade but threatened last month with an official ban launched EuroPride week on September 12 with rainbow flags and brief remarks.

The defiant opening of EuroPride passed without incident despite intense protests by religious and nationalist groups and a warning last month from President Aleksandar Vucic that the event could not take place although it had been approved three years ago.

"#EuroPride2022 has began. My @EuroPride colleagues and I are here for this historic event," Kristina Garina, president of the EuroPride organizers' association that licenses the annual event, tweeted after the ceremonies. "Congratulations and thank you to @belgradepride for their commitment and resilience organizing it."

Loosely affiliated right-wing groups like Dveri and the National Patrol, with the support of the Serbian Orthodox Church and its patriarch, held a third street protest and "litany" in Belgrade on September 11 to pressure officials to block EuroPride.

The march to Belgrade's towering Temple of St. Sava attracted thousands of people, threatening counterdemonstrations and other steps if EuroPride went ahead.

Serbian Orthodox Church Patriarch Porfirije led clerics and faithful in a prayer "for the sanctity of marriage and family" that accused "invisible forces" of imposing "ungodly and unnatural unions as a substitute for marriage and family."

EuroPride celebrates lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex pride at the pan-European level and has been hosted by a different European city each year since 1992. It has drawn crowds of over 1 million people multiple times.

The event includes music and theater, rights conferences, club nights, and culminates in a carnival-style parade that was scheduled for September 17 in Belgrade but has elicited threats from opponents and warnings from officials who say they can't ensure security for this year's march.

On September 10, Vucic said the Interior Ministry would hand down a final decision by September 14 on whether or not Serbian authorities would allow the event to go ahead.

Organizers have repeatedly vowed to continue and said a ban would infringe commitments by Serbia to uphold the European Convention on Human Rights.

One of EuroPride's local organizers, Marko Mihailovic, addressed a small group of attendees alongside Pride banners in front of the Palace of Serbia, which houses several ministries and other government offices in the New Belgrade district of the capital early on September 12.

Mihailovic said he'd looked forward to the event as a victory of common sense, democracy, and respect for the rule of law since it was initially approved for Belgrade three years ago. The recent hostilities and threats, he said, had changed the mood.

"I thought it would be a day when we will be overjoyed with the success we have made, but those are not the feelings I feel today," he said.

"We are standing in front of an institution which has not done enough to protect our constitutionally guaranteed rights," Mihailovic added.

At an LGBT Pride parade in Belgrade in 2010, antigay protesters, including gangs of young men, attacked participants and fought with police. The event returned in 2014 and has mostly taken place without incident since then.

Amid preparations for this year's events, the organizers hailed the first staging of EuroPride in Southeastern Europe as "a turning point" in the Western Balkans, where conservative religious and right-wing leaders have resisted equal rights for sexual minorities and gender rights.

But, as the date approached, the powerful Serbian church and mostly right-wing groups have tried to whip up opposition to the event.

Two rounds of street demonstrations brought out thousands of people demanding that Belgrade cancel its hosting of EuroPride.

Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, who is openly gay and a participant in a 2017 Pride event, declined to intervene to support holding the EuroPride events.

She responded angrily on September 12 to a local newspaper editor who accused Brnabic of selling out the LGBT community to become a "Progressive," a reference to Vucic's Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), which she joined after becoming prime minister as an independent five years ago.

Brnabic accused the editor and other "enlightened elites" of cubbyholing gay people as incapable of holding diverse political views.

"[To them] if you're gay, you can only be gay, period. It's the only thing that defines you," Brnabic tweeted. "You are not the prime minister -- but LGBT."

Written by Andy Heil based on reporting by RFE/RL Balkan Service correspondents Iva Gajic and Gordana Cosic in Belgrade, and Danas and N1