Gay rights in Serbia

 

WHEN VINCENT Degert addressed a 1,000-strong gay-rights demonstration in Belgrade on Sunday he was sending out a number of important messages to Serbia. Protected by more than 5,000 police from an even larger stone-throwing counter-demonstration, the EU ambassador told the crowd waving rainbow flags: “We are here to celebrate this very important day . . . to celebrate the values of tolerance, freedom of expression and assembly”. It was an unusual forum for a diplomatic démarche which should help to put a human face on the often-remote union, a practical personal gesture of empathy and solidarity which should be applauded.

Degert’s presence, with several other member state diplomats, was intended to emphasise both that tolerance and gay rights are core EU values, and that Serbia’s vocation for membership of the union also requires it to defend them. The last gay pride parade in Serbia – in 2001 – saw marchers badly beaten by a mob as police stood by idly, while last year the parade was cancelled because of threats. Elsewhere in the Balkans, gay-pride events are held regularly in the Slovenian capital Ljubljana, and in Zagreb, capital of Croatia.

Serbia remains deeply hostile to homosexuality – recent polls showed 67 per cent believe it an illness and 49 per cent say they would not tolerate a family member coming out as gay. On Sunday that prejudice fuelled the rage of football hooligans looking for a fight in a riot of unusual intensity, the first such in the capital since July 2008 when former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic was arrested. It saw over 120 people injured and €1 million damage done. Police detained 188.

But the issue was also a lightning rod for irredentist nationalists unreconciled to the pro-European leaning of the coalition of President Boris Tadic. It is to its credit that the government did not succumb. For many it was also a welcome reclaiming of their city from the mob.

Serbia’s path to EU accession has been given new momentum with its recent agreement to negotiate with its former province of Kosovo although it will still not recognise its independence. This spring Belgrade also finally apologised for the Srebrenica massacre. But it has yet to comply with the EU’s demand that it locate and hand over the military leader directly responsible for that crime, Gen Ratko Mladic, for trial in The Hague. However, Tadic hopes the country can begin accession talks by the beginning of 2012. His resolute defence of the march on Sunday makes that more likely.