BELGRADE — Gloomy weather and pouring rain — coupled with weeks of institutional hurdles and nationalist threats — did not stop the EuroPride parade from filling central Belgrade with rainbow-colored umbrellas and bright raincoats on Saturday evening.
“This is the most important EuroPride that’s been held in 30 years. The banning and un-banning of the Pride, the terrible opposition it has faced from the government and ministries and political parties in the last few days makes its importance clear,” the president of EuroPride, Kristine Garina, told POLITICO Europe.
Only Saturday morning did the Serbian government give the go-ahead for the parade, following weeks of controversy and international pressure after President Aleksandar Vučić canceled the event last month.
With rainbow flags tied around their shoulders — or even used as shields from the rain — the participants in the march hugged each other and spoke in elated tones as more and more people gathered in front of the Constitutional Court in Belgrade. The decision to start the parade in front of the court was emblematic of the decades-long fight of LGBT activists in Serbia to secure legal rights for their events.
“With EuroPride, our goal is to bring more international attention and to get European commissioners and parliamentarians involved,” Garina said.
At least two dozen European politicians attended the parade, including the EU commissioner for equality, Helena Dalli, and MEP Vladimir Bilcik — who said in his capacity as the European Parliament’s rapporteur for Serbia that the challenges EuroPride faced in Belgrade will leave a significant mark on the country’s annual report.
In late August, President Vučić announced his intention to cancel the pan-European pro-LGBT event due to ongoing political tensions between Serbia and Kosovo, sparking outrage in Serbian society as well as among EU representatives. Vučić later tried to counter the criticism over the cancellation by claiming that he has a lesbian family member and would “never disown her despite those who want to beat her up.”
Far-right groups held protests and Eastern Orthodox religious processions — known as litije — ahead of the scheduled parade date and protested en masse on Saturday chanting “Kill the gays” and throwing flares at the police on one of the main boulevards in Belgrade.
At a communal prayer last Sunday, Patriarch Porfirije, head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, said EuroPride was “desecrating traditional family values” and promoting “unnatural unions as a substitute for marriage.”
The parade itself had to be heavily cordoned by riot police. At one point, hooligans and anti-Pride protesters charged the police with sticks and batons as clashes were witnessed along the route.
The government said 5,200 workers from the ministry of internal affairs, mainly police officers, were on the scene to maintain security. More than 60 people were arrested and 10 police officers were injured, it said.
During the parade on Saturday, upbeat music blaring from moving speakers was mixed with threatening chants from the sidelines, where a combination of nationalist and religious protesters gathered and held up anti-Pride banners as well as wooden crosses and images of Serbian Orthodox religious icons.
Church bells were rung in opposition to the parade from St. Mark’s, the main Orthodox church along the route.
“We always knew it would be difficult, but what we witnessed goes beyond the level we expected. This was the first time we faced such intense conspiracy theories and opposition,” Garina said.
Serbia has faced continuous criticism since the renewed invasion of Ukraine by Russia in February, particularly because it refuses to apply sanctions against Moscow despite being an EU candidate country and for allowing rhetoric similar to that promoted by Putin to be promoted in mainstream media outlets.
The head of the far-right Zavetnici, or Oathkeepers, party, Milica Đurđević Stamenkovski, which is currently part of the Serbian parliament, said that the last-minute decision of President Vučić and Prime Minister Ana Brnabic to allow the Pride parade to take place is “proof that foreign ambassadors are above the laws of our country.”
Organizers of the parade have been accused by many in Serbia — including the pro-government media — of acting under the influence of the West. Garina said the “organizers and activists put together a monumental effort” in the face of such opposition.