Can Serbia join the EU after gay rights setbacks?

8th Nov 2011

On 12th October, the European Commission issued a report recommending that Serbia should be offered official candidate status to join the EU. The decision was long in the making, and not surprising. Serbia’s movement towards Europe began almost immediately after the resignation of President Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, when the EU declared that the nations of the western Balkans were “potential candidates” for membership. The EU had made Serbia’s candidacy conditional, however, upon its handing over the last of its war criminals to the Hague, and earlier this year, with great fanfare, Belgrade did just that. Former Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic was apprehended and extradited in May.

The European Commission’s offer, however, was an error. Not least because just two weeks before the report was released, the Serbian government banned a gay rights march scheduled to take place in Belgrade. The authorities feared a repeat of the violence seen at last year’s parade, when 5000 riot police were deployed to protect a mere 500 marchers from anti-gay rioters, who caused nearly $1.5m in damage and wounded over 100 police. Despite this violence, the march was the first successful demonstration of its type in the conservative, Orthodox Christian country.

This year, far right nationalist groups had promised to disrupt the event again, and their threats (all too credible) put the Serbian government in a difficult position. The year before, President Boris Tadic insisted that the parade would take place and took the unprecedented step of meeting gay activists beforehand, an extremely rare move for a leader in the former Yugoslavia. He did so, however, with the EU on his back. And while Brussels pressured Belgrade to allow the parade to go ahead again, the Serbian government did not listen this time.

“I am the interior minister of Serbia, not an internal affairs commissioner for the EU,” sniffed Serbian Interior Minister Ivica Dacic on October 4. “I suppose I know the security risks in my country better than they.”

Liberal values are at the core of the EU. And the protection of minority rights is central to any liberal agenda. By granting Serbia candidate status, the EU has rewarded open defiance. In its report, the European Commission even claims that “the legal and policy framework for human rights and the protection of minorities in Serbia is, overall, in line with European standards.” But this cannot be true as long as Serbian gays are not allowed to exercise the right to peaceful assembly that they would enjoy in London, Paris or Madrid.

The only precedent for an EU state behaving in such fashion has been Hungary, where Budapest police banned a gay pride parade earlier this year, only to have their decision overruled by a court

Of course, the Serbian government was right to be concerned by the possibility of violence and vandalism. But their response should not be to ban minority groups assembling peacefully. The answer is tougher policing. Far right organisations must be infiltrated and leaders who plan violence should be arrested before the event; those who riot and destroy property should be made to pay for the damage.

As was the case last year, the parade has become intertwined with the fate of the former Serbian province of Kosovo, whose independence Serbia refuses to recognise. Tensions have flared there recently, as ethnic Serbs living in the north have attacked Nato-led peacekeepers.

In October, Serbia’s police union capitalised on these tensions by issuing a joint statement with a right-wing, Christian group urging gay organisations to call off the parade, ostensibly as a precautionary measure to avoid violence directed at police officers.

The statement also claimed, however, that the country “is burdened with vulnerability of Serbs in Kosovo.” The implication was that deploying thousands of riot police to protect gays in Belgrade would risk the safety of those Serbs living in what most Serbians still consider a lost province.

The logic was faulty, but according to Serbian historian Dubravka Stojanovic, not uncommon. Politicians in Belgrade frequently use the Kosovo question as an excuse to avoid dealing with a variety of other sensitive issues. She recently wrote that “this ‘question above all questions’ prevents us from asking any other questions…and above all, hinders the development of Serbia.”

The arrests of war criminals Karadzic and Mladic show that Serbia has come a long way since the Milosevic era. But its decision to ban the gay rights march is a sop to the very same nationalistic and xenophobic forces that stoked the Balkan wars of the 1990s and which continue to threaten Serbia’s entry into Europe. At anti-gay demonstrations I attended last year, calls to ban the pride parade were interspersed with attacks on President Tadic for “betraying” his country by “surrendering” Kosovo. On the day of the parade, rioters attacked his party’s headquarters as well as that of the small Liberal Democratic party, which stands out for its support of Kosovan independence.

In August, on a visit to Belgrade, German Chancellor Angela Merkel issued a stern warning to the Serbian government, telling them that partitioning northern Kosovo is a pipe dream and that it should disestablish the parallel governing structures it has set up there. In light of the European Commission’s granting Serbia candidate status, these warnings sound feeble.

Last month’s decision also marks a major setback for Serbia’s embattled gay rights activists, who rightly felt that their allies in Europe would exact some sort of price from Belgrade for its decision to ban the parade. The promise of EU membership, aside from more tangible benefits like visa waiver programs, has been its leveraging potential: the ability to influence liberal reforms in its eastern neighbourhood. By holding out the possibility of joining the European club, the logic went, aspiring governments would implement tough anti-corruption measures, strengthen the rule of law, and work harder to incorporate minorities.

“With this the state capitulated, ” parade organizer Goran Miletic told Reuters last month. “A democratic state should be able to guarantee two hours of security to its citizens.” And by rewarding Belgrade for standing down in the face of violent hooligans, the EU has capitulated as well.

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