September 15, 2022 | Just Security

Serbia’s Move to Cancel EuroPride Shows How Vučić Plays Off West Against Russia and His Base

September 15, 2022 | Just Security

Serbia’s Move to Cancel EuroPride Shows How Vučić Plays Off West Against Russia and His Base

The Serbian government is moving to cancel a long-planned parade in Belgrade this Saturday as part of the annual pan-European EuroPride celebration, hosted in a different European city each year, after thousands of religious conservatives marched on Sept. 11 to, as they put it, protect Serbian “traditional values.” President Alexander Vučić’s decision last month to cancel the weeklong celebration and the Serbian police announcement on Sept. 13 that it was banning Saturday’s parade may be part of his strategy of constantly playing the West and Serbian moderates off against Moscow and his domestic right-wing base. The EuroPride decisions and events, for example, should be seen within the context of Vučić’s decisions around the same time to accede to an agreement brokered by the European Union and the United States over border ID disputes with Kosovo. 

Vučić’s decision to cancel EuroPride stands in contrast to Serbia’s historic role as one of the most pro-LGBTQ countries in the Balkans. Serbian activists have been organizing marches since 2001, and in 2014, Vučić took steps to back these activists by authorizing and mobilizing police to protect marchers from the threat of violent right-wing protestors. This official backing lent the marches an air of legitimacy, and Pride events in Serbia have since drawn activists from all over the region, including members of the European Union Parliament and the Western diplomatic corps. Pride marches have been violence-free since 2014 and became normalized.

That yielded Belgrade Pride sufficient political backing by European LGBTQ groups and the Serbian government in support of Belgrade Pride’s bid to host European Pride (EuroPride) in 2022. It marks the first time a Slavic country has hosted European Pride and a major step forward by Serbia in support of European LGBTQ human rights.   

Why then take this step to cancel EuroPride, one that is sure to upset the leadership of many Western governments and human rights organizations, even as Vučić continues to give at least lip service to the country’s aspirations for EU membership? The move illustrates how Vučić’s power rests largely on his ability to balance the West and Russia, in turn mollifying and extracting concessions and promises from each as they fear that Serbia will fall under the other side’s influence.

This constant game is evident in everything Vučić does. He refused to join EU sanctions against Russia in the spring, but in June declared — as he frequently does — that joining the EU is in Serbia’s best interest. On the same day he announced the cancelation of the EuroPride event, Aug. 27, he also said he would propose that openly lesbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić be re-elected by Serbia’s National Assembly to an unprecedented third term heading his Cabinet. She has since been re-elected. This balancing act has allowed Vučić to negotiate, among other things, favorable arms deals with Moscow, while bringing in significant economic aid from the EU.

As a young member of Serbia’s Parliament in 1995, Vučić in a now-infamous speech during the war in neighboring Bosnia, vowed to Serbia’s parliament that “For every Serb killed, we will kill 100 Muslims.” Within a few years, he joined Slobodan Milošević’s government, serving as minister of information during the 1998-1999 war in Kosovo.

Today’s older Vučić is more pragmatic, a man who demonstrates allegiance to Moscow but understands well that he needs the West for Serbia’s — and his own — financial survival, via EU accession and the generous economic support that comes with it. Over the duration of his leadership, Vučić has toned down his rhetoric to a certain extent and pledged to bring Serbia closer to the EU, but still regularly takes steps that seem more aligned with the Kremlin than with Brussels. 

The intersection of the EuroPride events with the Serbia-Kosovo border dispute was typical. On Aug. 27, the same day Vučić sought to cancel EuroPride, he not only endorsed Brnabić as prime minister again but also reached an EU and U.S.-brokered agreement with Kosovo to resolve their dispute over identification for border crossings. The accord would undoubtedly have angered the Kremlin, which has been among the outliers globally in rejecting recognition of Kosovo’s sovereignty since it declared independence from Serbia in 2008. The day before Vučić’s accord with Kosovo, on Aug. 26, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia Gabriel Escobar had declared that it was time to forget the narrative that “Kosovo is Serbia” and start saying that “Kosovo and Serbia are actually Europe.” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova quickly responded, “Never.”

Moscow, of course, also has long made its own phobias clear on issues related to LGBTQ rights. In 2013, for instance, Putin’s regime escalated its campaign against LGBTQ Russians with ”gay propaganda” laws that prohibited information for minors on LGBTQ issues, essentially a dog whistle against gays and lesbians and homosexuality. Such onerous laws are bolstered by the Russian government’s close relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church, which the Kremlin has long wielded as an instrument of foreign meddling and sowing of chaos, including in the Balkans.

The Russian Orthodox Church maintains close relations with the Serbian Orthodox Church, which organized last weekend’s right-wing protest in Belgrade, according to the Associated Press, and both churches are known to maintain close ties with their respective governments. Both churches seek to safeguard what they perceive as the “traditional values” of their respective societies, so it was no surprise when Serbian Patriarch Porfirije supported the Serbian government’s decision to cancel EuroPride, which he said was not in accordance with traditional Serbian values – “the pillars on which our identity has been built for centuries.” Porfirije’s stance mirrors that of the Russian Orthodox Church, which for years has been a vocal opponent of holding public Pride events in Russia. In fact, last weekend’s right-wing Belgrade protest even featured Russian flags and portraits of Putin, the AP reported.

It’s clear the decisions by Vučić’s government against EuroPride mark just the latest iteration of his manipulative balancing act between the West and more moderate forces in Serbia on the one hand and Russia and his far-right base on the other. The West must ensure that his strategy of playing these sides off against each other, to the detriment of the EU values that Serbia must embrace to gain membership, backfires, and understand the complex games Vučić is playing. Make no mistake: Unrestrained, Vučić’s anti-Western and anti-human rights decisions will only become more extreme.

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Russia