Entering the Belgrade Pride Parade through the cordon sanitaire from the direction of the main train station, everything seemed to eerily resemble the last Pride held in October 2010 when the city was attacked by around 7,000 hooligans who wounded over 100 police and civilians. This year however, the worst injuries Belgrade Pride participants sustained was perhaps mild sunburn as they walked up Knez Miloš street from the Government of Serbia to the Belgrade City Parliament in sunny autumn weather.
One of the biggest talking points for Pride participants already at the assembly point was the conspicuous absence of right wingers and hooligans on the streets of the city. This was unexpected considering Serbia’s difficult experience of holding (and banning) Pride events in the last 15 years and the unpopularity of the event amongst large swathes of Serbia’s population. Recent mobilisations were led by the Serbian Orthodox Church (whose Patriarch recently claimed that “gays are the same as paedophiles”) and far right groups like Dveri who assembled in the lead up to Pride. While the police presence along the pride route was considerable, their numbers were visibly less than in 2010.
Successfully holding Belgrade Pride without the large scale violence which has plagued previous attempts might be optimistically interpreted as a positive change in Serbian society and institutions. Unfortunately, the reasons for the calm during Pride 2014 probably have more to do with murky networks of power and cooperation between Vučić’s government and Serbia’s many far right groups than a creeping acceptance of LGBT rights amongst Serbian citizens.
“So, not even a hundred hooligans went out on the street. No leader of hooligan groups, extremist organisations, not Anđeli pakla, Zabranjeni, Alkatraz, Delije, United Force, neonacisti, Krv i čast, Zavetnici, Obraz, Naši, Dveri [hooligan and fascist formations], nobody apart from a few stray radicals. So, why did all these people not come even though they have regularly done so until 2012? Does somebody maybe control all these violent people in Serbia? This is the most dangerous fact which we found out today and which we should follow closely in the future. Do we have armed units who work on command, burn down embassies when required, burn Belgrade when needed but stay at home when the Leader demands it?”
While Belgraders may today breathe a sigh of relief that the city was not once again engulfed by violence towards its people and property, the issue of sinister links between Vučić, his government, state security and intelligence forces, and the many and far right hooligan and fascist groups in Serbia has been highlighted in an unexpected way – through the conspicuous absence of violence.
To add a bizarre twist, two of the few individuals who actually did sustain injuries in altercations with security forces were the brothers of Premier Vučić, and Mayor of Belgrade Siniša Mali. Andrej Vučić, in the company of Predrag Mali attempted to pass a police cordon with bodyguards for unclear reasons. This video clip shows Serbian gendarmes attempting to pacify Andrej Vučić requesting him repeatedly to lie down and beating him with batons. (Vučić responded to the incident by “forgiving” the gendarmes in consideration that they were “doing a job they did not want to do” while government tabloids vilified the gendarmes).
While Belgrade Pride 2014 was an achievement in breaking the taboo of three consecutive bans since 2011 while avoiding the violence that characterised 2001 and 2010, one should be cautious in interpreting the event as a simple victory for human rights. Conditions for a peaceful Pride appear to have occurred with acquiescence of the far right leadership (for reasons yet unclear or for promises which are yet unknown).
In 2010 debate in Serbia raged about the strength of the Serbian state and its security forces vis-à-vis far right groups and hooligans with Ivica Dačić, then Minister for Internal Affairs making the claim that “nobody is more powerful than the state”. Four years later it appears that somebody is indeed more powerful than state institutions and has the capacity to rein in the far right and hooligan groups that have plagued Serbia for decades. Unfortunately he is unlikely to do so.
Rory Archer is a PhD candidate at the University of Graz where he works as a researcher at the Centre for Southeast European Studies on the FWF funded project “Between class and nation: Working class communities in 1980s Serbia and Montenegro”. Recent publications include the volume Debating the End of Yugoslavia (Florian Bieber, Armina Galijaš and Rory Archer, eds. 2014).