BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Opposition parties in Serbia and international rights groups on Sunday denounced a decision by populist President Aleksandar Vucic to cancel next month’s pan-European LGBTQ EuroPride event because of what he said were threats from right-wing extremists.
Most of the groups said that they would ignore the ban announced Saturday by Vucic and go ahead with the Sept. 12-18 events scheduled in the capital, Belgrade.
Vucic said that a political crisis with Serbia’s former breakaway province of Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008, and economic problems facing the country amid Russia’s war in Ukraine were among the reasons why the Balkan nation’s authorities couldn’t handle EuroPride.
The U.N. office in Serbia said it was concerned about the announced ban, saying it would jeopardize “the right to freedom of assembly as guaranteed by the Serbian Constitution.”
“The EuroPride is also an opportunity to celebrate the foundations of a strong and progressive society based on social equity, equality of all rights, solidarity, friendship and love,” U.N. Resident Coordinator in Serbia Francoise Jacob said.
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 a 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.
In a protest called before the cancellation of the pride event, thousands of right-wing church supporters marched through the Serbian capital Sunday evening in a procession they said was “to save Serbia.” They were led by the Serbian branch of the Night Wolves, the Russian biker group that is considered close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Civic Democratic Forum opposition party accused the Serbian president of “playing dictator” by modeling himself after Putin, and trying to ban the Belgrade pride event.
Civic Democratic leader Zoran Vuletic said in a statement that the party wanted to remind Vucic “that he cannot cancel an event that he did not schedule and that he cannot, according to the constitution, prohibit the gathering of people.”
Vucic on Saturday announced the decision to cancel the EuroPride celebration during a news conference where he also proposed extending the term of Serbia’s prime minister, Ana Brnabic, who is a lesbian.
Brnabic has been frequently accused by Serbia’s gay rights groups of doing nothing to help their status is Serbia during her first two terms in the government. She joined Vucic in supporting the cancellation of the EuroPride event.
“No matter how you turn it, from any angle you look at it, the first inviolable thing is to ensure peace and stability in the country,” Brnabic said.