Serbia: LGBTQI+ people the latest target of repression
Emboldened nationalists and conservative church groups are attacking LGBTQI+ rights in Serbia. A Pride parade was cut short and school textbooks are being rewritten. The government, long known for attacking civil society and independent media, is failing to stand up for LGBTQI+ people. Serbian anti-rights groups are drawing inspiration from both the US fundamentalist Christian movement that is banning books and Russian nationalists claiming to be at war with ‘gender ideology’, working through the influential Serbian Orthodox Church. If Serbia is serious about wanting to join the European Union, the government needs to act to protect fundamental rights – including the rights of LGBTQI+ people.
Serbia’s civil society, particularly the environmental movement and independent media, have long been under attack. Now LGBTQI+ people are increasingly in the firing line, targeted by conservative clerics and far-right nationalist groups who find the government only too willing to do their bidding. In September, the government tried to ban a major Pride event. The following month, it ordered changes to several school textbooks that addressed gender and sex.
A hostile election
For the last 10 years the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) has been the dominant political force in Serbia. Its name is misleading: far from being progressive, it’s an economically neoliberal and socially conservative party. During its time in power, nationalist, far-right and ultra-conservative groups have flourished.
Both President Aleksandar Vučić and Prime Minister Ana Brnabić are SNS politicians. In April 2022, Vučić was re-elected with 60 per cent of the vote. The SNS-led group lost its parliamentary majority in the National Assembly election, held at the same time, but was still able to piece together a governing coalition, while the opposition remains divided.
Its huge lead in the previous parliamentary election, in 2020, arose when many parties boycotted the vote over concerns it wouldn’t be free or fair. The boycott was lifted following talks between the government and opposition, but the 2022 elections were still dogged by multiple allegations of media bias, vote-buying and workplace pressure to vote for the SNS, along with harassment and physical attacks on opposition politicians and supporters.
Civil society organisations (CSOs) experienced hostility too. A government official accused a CSO monitoring the elections of bias. Right-wing parties vilified CSOs as undermining Serbian sovereignty and values, picking up on language spread by the SNS and its many associated media outlets, which routinely call civil society ‘traitors’ and ‘foreign mercenaries’.
The same regressive forces were active and vocal in the run-up to the EuroPride event, held in Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, in September. This annual gathering, which takes place in a different European city each year, encompasses a Pride parade, human rights discussions and music and other arts events. This was the first time it was held in a Balkan country.
But just a few days before the Pride parade was due, Vučić announced it had been cancelled. He cited safety concerns and its potential to incite extremist groups. His decision was roundly condemned by human rights groups and members of the European Parliament.
🏳️🌈 Our co-chair @TerryReintke (@GreensEFA) made today a point of order in the @Europarl_EN’s #Plenary session on #EuroPride— LGBTI Intergroup (@LGBTIintergroup) September 14, 2022
🏼 watch below the encouraging response from #LGBTIQ ally, @EP_President: «We still need #Pride. Too many people live in fear.»@belgradepride @EuroPride pic.twitter.com/rOcbouMmqr
Vučić’s decision was preceded by protests calling for a cancellation, including a large demonstration led by the Serbian Orthodox Church and right-wing groups on 11 September. Those opposed to the event shouted slogans such as ‘save our children, save our family’. The right-wing populist Dveri party, part of an alliance that won 10 seats in the parliamentary election, went further, calling for a referendum with a proposal to ban Pride events for 100 years.
A last-minute appeal to save the parade was turned down, but a compromise allowed participants to take part in a shorter walk to the stadium where the end-of-event concert was held. Even then, anti-rights groups gathered to try to stop the march, with many people carrying bibles and crosses. Violent protesters trampled on a rainbow flag, attacked police and journalists and attempted to break through the security cordon protecting those marching.
Following the concert, participants from Albania and Germany were attacked on the way back to their hotels, with two people left requiring medical treatment. The police were criticised for being slow to respond.
This was not an isolated event: violence is also regularly enacted against Pride Info Centre, the first public LGBTQI+ space in Serbia, which aims to raise awareness about LGBTQI+ issues and provide information on Pride events. Since it opened in 2019, it has been attacked 15 times, including by neo-Nazi groups. No one has ever been held accountable for these attacks.
The repression and violence EuroPride encountered showed precisely why such events are necessary – they are an integral part of the strategy of LGBTQI+ groups to gain visibility, normalise the presence of LGBTQI+ people in society and claim rights.
School book bans
Limiting if not completely halting the parade further emboldened anti-rights groups. The week after EuroPride, Dveri and the Serbian Orthodox Church turned their focus on an increasingly familiar target in culture wars around the world: school textbooks.
In doing so, they followed the lead of the rising US conservative Christian movement fighting to restrict the books children can access in schools and libraries. Fundamentalist Christian groups have long been active, but their campaign has intensified following Donald Trump’s 2020 election defeat, which has left them even more determined to entrench their ideology. These groups are well resourced and have global influence.
In the USA, books are currently being banned simply because they talk about race or feature Black people, or have themes of human rights and activism. But more than any other reason, fiction and non-fiction books are being banned because they have LGBTQI+ themes or mention LGBTQI+ people: freedom of expression group PEN America assesses that of 1,648 banned titles in the USA, 41 per cent have LGBTQI+ themes or protagonists.
In Serbia, it all started with a school biology textbook issued last year, which was objected to on the supposed grounds that it ‘imposes an unacceptable LGBT ideology’. Dveri then broadened the complaint, calling for seven further books, on civic education, history and sociology, to be withdrawn. One of the biology books in question simply explained the difference between gender and sex and discussed sexual orientation and gender identity.
The education minister referred the matter to the National Educational Council, with the order that it should review whether the books served not only the best interests of children, but also the ‘national interest’. The Biological Society of Serbia clarified that the books contained nothing scientifically controversial. But regardless, in October the authorities decreed that text in seven of the eight books must be changed in relation to the ‘biological meaning of adolescence’.
For anti-rights groups, any victory is only a stepping stone. Emboldened by this success, they can be expected to demand further changes in the education system and elsewhere to exclude and stigmatise LGBTQI+ people. Already the Serbian Orthodox Church is pushing to make religious education compulsory, something that would only further extend its influence in schools.
Dveri, meanwhile, has its sights set on laws against so-called LGBTQI+ propaganda similar to those adopted in Russia in 2013 and Hungary in 2021. These broad-reaching laws ban the sharing of information that the authorities consider promotes gender identities or sexual orientations that go against established norms among non-adults. They help to make LGBTQI+ people less visible in everyday life and hold young LGBTQI+ people back as they come to terms with their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The strange thing is that all this is happening at a time when Serbia has not only its first woman prime minister but also its first out LGBTQI+ one. Ana Brnabić is in a relationship and has a child with another woman – although the law prevents them marrying. In 2017, Brnabić made headlines when she attended Belgrade Pride, the first head of government to do so in the Balkans.
But since then, Brnabić has attracted criticism from rights groups for doing little to advance LGBQTI+ rights. In part, this may be due to the distribution of governmental power. While the presidency is supposed to be a largely ceremonial office, under Vučić it has increasingly become the key executive role, with the prime minister often placed in a secondary position.
Brnabić’s failure to bring advances also points to the limits of political representation. Just because a politician belongs to a particular group doesn’t imply they share a political or cultural standpoint. And even if that person takes a positive position on the rights of excluded groups, it doesn’t guarantee that change will follow: a rare success in winning office can even be used as an excuse to avoid action, enabling the claim that since one politician made it to the top, the problem of exclusion no longer exists.
If the government is serious about joining the European Union it needs to show it’s prepared to respect fundamental rights.
There are other powerful forces at play, coming not just from the USA but from Serbia’s near east. The protests against EuroPride saw participation by supporters of Vladimir Putin and his invasion of Ukraine, with some protesters waving Russian flags. There’s heavy crossover between the forces who want to stamp down on LGBTQI+ rights – and rights in general – and those who see Russia rather than the European Union (EU) as the model to follow.
That nexus includes the dominant religion. In the last census, 85 per cent of Serbians declared their affiliation with the Serbian Orthodox Church, a socially conservative force strongly associated with its Russian counterpart. A March 2022 European Parliament resolution on foreign interference in democratic processes in Europe highlighted the problem, calling attention to Russia’s influence on Orthodox churches in multiple countries seeking EU membership, including Serbia. It described how churches promote Russia as a defender of ‘traditional family values’.
Serbia has a long history of allying with Russia. It has relied on Russia’s support to block international recognition of Kosovo’s independence. Many Serbian nationalists promote the idea of a greater Slavic identity connecting the two countries. Putin’s absurd messaging that his invasion of Ukraine is somehow intended to defend ‘traditional values’ from an imposed western agenda is targeted at them.
The war has tested Serbia’s relationship with Russia. Serbia voted to support the United Nations (UN) General Assembly resolution condemning the invasion and to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council. But while Serbia, along with several neighbouring states, is in negotiations to join the EU, it also depends on Russian energy. Vučić has resisted the kind of sanctions being imposed on Russia by EU member states – and that anti-LGBTQI+ parties strongly oppose.
It’s increasingly untenable for Serbia to face both ways. Many of those working to make life harder for LGBTQI+ people would be delighted if Serbia stood by Putin. But if the government is serious about joining the EU it needs to show it’s prepared to respect fundamental rights – starting with the freedom for LGBTQI+ people to march, protest and demand rights.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The Serbian government must commit to upholding fundamental rights – including the freedom of peaceful assembly – as part of its negotiations with the EU.
The government must investigate all instances of violence and hate speech against LGBTQI+ people and hold perpetrators to account.
The EU must demand progress on respect for LGBTQI+ rights if Serbia is to continue on track to join the EU.
Serbia is currently on the CIVICUS Monitor Watch List, which identifies countries in which a severe and abrupt deterioration in the quality of civic space is taking place.
Cover photo by EuroPride 2022