On stepping off the airport bus it was clear that central Belgrade was in lock down. A vast chunk of the city centre was off-limits. Armoured vehicles, water cannon, dogs, tear gas: all were deployed in force. In total some 5,000 riot police had encircled an area of around three square miles in the heart of the Serbian capital.
Given that it was such an eerily quiet Sunday morning: such an overt display of force from the state seemed surreal. The reason for the operation was not, in itself, a matter for distress or panic. It did however demonstrate the kind of divisions Serbian society has long been trying to grapple with. Namely, how to accommodate the rights of LGBT people in a country still dominated by entrenched social conservatism.
The reason for the epic scale of the security operation has its roots in a long running controversy around the staging of the parade since it was attacked by far-right thugs in 2010, injuring some 150 people. It took four years for the parade to be reinstated, turning the annual event into the frontline of Serbia’s culture war. On entering the temporary LGBT enclave, I found avenues deserted, shops closed, all for the presence of a brash, but unavoidably small gathering. Estimates of numbers in attendance varied wildly, it’s unlikely there were more than 1,000 people present. Whatever the true figure the march was an island in an otherwise dead city. Incongruously, it started off under the still derelict Ministry of Defence building bearing the scars of NATO airstrikes.
In the only European capital to have been the victim of aerial bombardment in a generation, these protests have high political symbolism. The ongoing process of European Union integration and rapprochement with the U.S. is still deeply contested. The nation’s complex relationship with fellow Slavs and Orthodox believers under the explicitly homophobic regime of Putin, holds far more appeal for some. Such geopolitical controversies, coupled with a still salient ethnic nationalism and strong religious values, combine to make Pride a perennial potential flashpoint. The Serbian Orthodox Church has fared far better than its western cousins, with adherents making up an overwhelming majority of the population. The church is big business too, with the kind of cultural and political pull that has long vanished in other parts of Europe.
On the parade itself, participants were essentially indistinct from those that take part in similar events all over the world. Many had also turned out from afar in solidarity. The radical subjectivity that comes from perceiving love as primarily a matter of individual self-expression manifests itself in similar forms everywhere.
In the distance the faithful and their icons could just be made out from the rally point outside Serbia’s parliament. Their rebuttals to the sound of whistles and Rhianna were solemn and reproaching: stares of incomprehension rather than visceral disgust or violence, which was almost totally absent.
At a time of desperate scrabbling for some kind of answer to the enormous existential crises facing Europe, it is in such irreconcilable rites that the true scale of current challenges facing the continent can be seen. For the European Union, such confrontations are shunted to the periphery where they can be legitimately contained. Whatever their nature, keeping this distance and mitigating the impact on western Europe is the single greatest political priority.
Not far from the march I see a group of Syrians negotiating with taxi drivers to take them ever closer to the promise of Europe. On Serbia’s border with the now iron-clad Schengen frontier another more aggressive form of crowd control is taking place.
That age old trope of European history: the stand off between east and west, is back, if it ever really went away. As before, neither competing force is able to articulate values that might surmount the suffering behind such friction. Contrary to the logic of integration, Serbia and other Balkan countries have been praised for their progressive and open approach to refugees. In contrast already integrated countries such as Hungary tell their own populations, themselves desirous of opportunity in the west, sickeningly familiar stories of hordes, contamination, Christian civilisation and foreign parasites.
The realities of policing Belgrade’s Pride and policing Europe’s borders are not so different. Among the most basic functions of policing is the demarcation of space. The complete political failure of European powers to address the causes and the consequences of the war in Syria is deemed peripheral. It needs the cordon to be far off, just as the Serbian authorities must keep traditionalist and LGBT activists barely visible to each other. In between the two there is an eerie vacuum of silence. The border is once again becoming the definitive political topic everywhere.
The proxy work of Hungary’s now fully militarised efforts to prevent the penetration of their frontier, allows the brittle nature of the status quo to be protected by hard power, but it only just prevents it shattering. The idealism of Europe is dying because it has lost its basic universalist foundation. Such ideals contend that a refugee is a refugee and that the freedom to love must be free for all, that the only qualification for human rights is our basic shared humanity: not the accidents of passport or birth. Such tenets rest on the knowledge that if all are not free then all are diminished.
Today Europe’s conceit of itself as the guardian of Renaissance and Enlightenment in a world of darkness, unravels in a daily diet of political failure. In forgetting the story of its birth: that solidarity, culture and cooperation might overcome conflict, it forgets everything. Revanchists like Putin know this fundamental hypocrisy and play on it. Buoyed by such intellectual dishonesty everything: sovereignty, values, human rights, is relegated to the domain of authoritarian sophistry and relativism.
Later, in a scruffier part of the city, I pass a small park and see groups sitting in the sun next to colourful tents. At first, I associate this sight with some form of protest too. Perhaps, on some level, it is. Afghans, Syrians, Iraqis wait on the grass with a disarming air of normality. These people are resting from their own long march towards a Europe that they believe offers them a chance at freedom too. Tragically, there is no geopolitical project that aligns with their safety and happiness.