Is the country is embroiled in a proxy war between West and East?
Aside from the occasional trans-related controversy, Pride parades in western Europe tend to go ahead without much fuss. But in the East, they are far more contentious. In Serbia, a storm has been brewing over the international EuroPride event planned to be held in Belgrade in September, and this weekend the Serbian government finally announced that the parade would be cancelled.
The exact nature of the cancellation remains unclear — Prime Minister Ana Brnabić, who is openly gay, characterised it as “more of a plea” than an outright ban. But President Aleksandar Vučić’s announcement that the event would not take place sounded final: he said that amid intense pressures against the event “you can’t have everything, and that’s it”.
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EuroPride’s organisers insist they will go ahead anyway, calling the cancellation unconstitutional as “the right to hold Pride has been ruled by the European Court of Human Rights to be a fundamental human right”.
It may appear as though Vučić and his government have taken a stridently reactionary position, but the truth is more complicated. Vučić was at pains to stress that he did not cancel EuroPride for ideological reasons, saying he is “not happy” about the decision, as it “of course jeopardises minority rights”.
Yet in the end, the government could not ignore the strength of feeling against EuroPride in conservative Serbian society. Thousands took to the streets in August to protest against the event. Criticisms from the Serbian Orthodox Church verged on incitements to violence; one bishop “cursed” EuroPride organisers and participants, saying that it would “desecrate the city of Belgrade, the holy Serbian city,” before adding that “if I had a weapon, I would use it”.
Vučić condemned these remarks, saying they “humiliated our church”. Yet the potential for civil strife is palpable, and the government claims the danger is being heightened by volatile geopolitical circumstances.
The choice between West and East facing Serbia is starker than ever. Belgrade’s refusal to recognise Kosovo — the insurmountable obstacle to Serbia’s integration into the Western order — has been highlighted by tensions over proposed new travel rules with the breakaway state. Meanwhile, Vučić is walking a tightrope over the Ukraine war, refusing to sanction Russia while continuing to affirm an EU future for Serbia.
Such issues might seem unrelated to a Pride parade, but the event is being explicitly framed as a manifestation of the choice between West and East. According to the organisers, the parade would “allow Serbia to show that it is on the road to being a progressive, welcoming European nation”. The EU ambassador to Serbia meanwhile warned that equality and non-discrimination are “fundamental rights which we expect our closest partners to uphold”.
And as is the case throughout eastern Europe, support for LGBT freedoms more generally is inextricably linked with affiliation to the West. Indeed, in this region, LGBT rights are seen as more representative than any other issue of modern Western ideology. They are, therefore, heavily implicated in the “proxy war” which Vučić says is now being waged in Serbia between East and West.
In this context, a reluctant cancellation of EuroPride may be another attempt by the Serbian government to maintain its awkward neutrality in international affairs: a neutrality which reflects popular divisions. But as pressures mount at home and abroad, the balancing act looks increasingly precarious.