Serbia populist leader Vucic says pride ban will be enforced

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbia’s populist leader said Tuesday a government decision to cancel the holding next month of a pan-European LGBTQ event will be enforced despite international criticism and the organizers’ pledge that they will gather anyway.

President Aleksandar Vucic and the Serbian government have cited threats of violence from right-wing extremists, a crisis with Kosovo and economic problems facing the country amid Russia’s war in Ukraine as the reasons why they cannot handle the Sept. 12-18 events.

The decision announced on Saturday has faced criticism from opposition parties in Serbia and rights activists at home and abroad, who blasted the authorities for not protecting democratic rights and caving in to pressure from extremist groups opposed to the Pride march.

“If a gathering is banned, then it will be banned,” Vucic said. “There will be no games with state decisions.”

Organizers of the EuroPride — which includes a week of various events and a Pride march in Belgrade — have said they are yet to receive a formal ban and will appeal it in Serbia’s courts.

“We will use all legal means at our disposal,” Goran Miletic, director of Civil Rights Defenders, told The Associated Press. “If they persist with the ban, we will gather nonetheless and walk together with our friends from abroad.”

Members of the European Pride Organizers Association chose Serbia’s capital three years ago to host the annual event, hoping it would represent a major breakthrough for a Slavic country that is traditionally conservative and under strong influence from the Orthodox Church.

Serbia is formally seeking European Union membership, but has for years been moving closer to Russia’s political orbit. The Balkan country has voted for U.N. resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but has refused to join Western sanctions against Moscow.

Serbia’s liberal opposition parties and local rights groups have urged supporters to join the Pride march as part of struggle for democracy that they say is under threat in Serbia from Vucic’s autocratic regime.

Miletic said that “damage has been done already” to the reputation of Serbia which has vowed to improve LBGTQ rights as part of the EU integration process. “The opportunity for Belgrade to show its open face and tolerance is gone,” he said.

Holding church symbols and pictures of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, thousands of Pride opponents marched in Belgrade on Sunday. The procession dubbed “for Serbia’s salvation” was led by the Serbian branch of the Night Wolves, the Russian biker group that is considered close to Putin.

Right-wing groups in Serbia support Russian invasion of Ukraine and advocate a tough stance on Kosovo, Serbia’s former province that declared independence in 2008, which Belgrade does not recognize. Nationalists want Serbia to scrap the EU bid because Belgrade must normalize ties with Kosovo if it wants to join the 27-nation bloc.

Marko Mihajlovic, one of the EuroPride organizers in Serbia, told the AP he believed that Vucic’s announcement about the Pride march really served to draw attention away from a deal with Kosovo that was made public only hours later.

“It (Kosovo) is a very unpopular topic,” Mihajlovic said. “Even if they attempt to ban it, we will march, because our lives matter and we won’t stop fighting just because somebody uses us as a political tool.”