Just a few dozen yards from Belgrade’s Palace of Justice, a piece of graffiti has stood daubed on the wall for six years now; it reads ‘Death to Faggots’. National, city, and municipal administrations have come and gone, but no-one has shown interest in this graffiti, nor in any of the many similar ones throughout Serbia. It seems irrelevant that it is written on the wall of a nursery school and right next to the vocational school for navigation, shipbuilding, and hydraulic engineering. People passing by it every day are quite used to casual violence in public spaces, so people either don’t notice the graffiti or don’t see it as an issue. Perhaps a ‘journalist’ might describe the message, dating back to the violence of the 2010 Pride parade, as ‘a relic of the past that has, somehow, managed to escape the ravages of time’.
And yet things are much more serious. Courts in the neighbouring Palace of Justice, the same as other courts, are yet to develop tried and tested practices for dealing with hate speech and hate crime. The lack of court involvement makes it difficult for the public to understand that incitement to lynching, hatred, and violence is a criminal offence, and that the penalty can only be more severe if the victim was targeted as a member of a particular social group. Quite the contrary: most members of the public seem to think that a crime is sufficiently justified if the victim belongs to a minority group. There is a strange but widespread belief that violence against some groups, such as women, the LGBT+ community, the Roma, etc., is caused by vaguely-defined ‘intolerance’ that nothing can be done about.
There is a climate of impunity in cases where LGBT+ people are victimised, as borne out by the banning of four Pride Parades and the refusal to prosecute perpetrators of violence in 2010 (although some were arrested, no serious convictions were ever handed down) or members of extremist groups whose threats led to the 2009, 2011, 2012, and 2013 Prides being banned. Moreover, the state has been reluctant to enact legislation that not even extreme right-wingers oppose (such as a proposed Law on Legal Recognition of Sex Change). It is easy for the public to forget that cases of extremist violence are very seldom prosecuted, regardless of whether they take place in the homes of LGBT+ people, city centre cafes, or the streets. Members of the public are unwilling to consider the plight of victims from their own perspective and imagine, even if for just one brief instant, what it must be like to live as an LGBT+ person, especially as a survivor of violence and discrimination. For most of them, being able to be open about their sexual orientation in the workplace remains nothing more than a dream.
This is the context in which Mr Vucic, the Serbian Prime Minister designate, has told the press that the Serbian cabinet was to include ‘a minister whose stated orientation is homosexual’. The incoming Prime Minister seems to have found it difficult to simply say the minister in question was lesbian: rather, he used the medical term, adding that this was her ‘stated orientation’. Mr Vucic underlined that the person was ‘pleasant and nice’, as if to say that other LGBT+ people were not, and that she had said she would not agree to take up the post ‘if he were to object’. Very few references were made to the new minister as a lesbian, as if this was (still) something depraved and to be ashamed of, whilst a daily newspaper (probably intentionally) used the Serbian word lezbijka, seen as offensive by the community, instead of the usual lezbejka in its cover story. The ministerial nominee, Ana Brnabic, had never discussed her sexual orientation before yesterday’s news broke; in one of the couple of brief statements made today she said that ‘this was not the issue at hand’; in another, that ‘this could be discussed after her formal election’.
This major public relations coup for the incoming Prime Minister will be well-received in the West, and will be used as an argument to support the claim that ‘everything must be fine in Serbia, there’s even a gay cabinet minister’. Many feel that the Prime Minister’s action should be welcomed without any hesitation as a historic moment for the LGBT+ community. However, a parallel can be drawn with the inclusion of national minority politicians (such as, for instance, Hungarians, Bosniaks, Roma, Albanians, etc.) into Serbia’s executive bodies. This process, in evidence since 2000, has not brought about any improvement in terms of respect for these communities’ human and minority rights. Quite the contrary, it seems that any change has been very limited in scope, and it is likely that the LGBT+ community will not see any marked improvement even after Ms Brnabic has joined the Serbian cabinet.
Of course, involving any groups that face discrimination in public life – especially in government – is of the utmost importance and should be applauded, but any efforts in that regard must be accompanied by a number of other measures. First of all, the person in question must be treated as an equal to his or her colleagues in cabinet. He or she must not be a mere token presence or seen as a necessary evil. In a number of well-publicised cases, political parties and government institutions have welcomed disabled persons, Roma, or LGBT+ people as members or officers with an eye only to their own gain. Secondly, such a symbolic gesture would have to be reinforced by a desire to truly improve the position of the minority community. Yet that is exactly what is missing in this case, giving the lie to the Prime Minister’s declared intention. No laws to improve the position of the LGBT+ community have been announced (with some cabinet ministers even opposing debate on a proposed Law on Registered Partnerships); clear and concrete measures to address violence against and discrimination of LGBT+ people are also absent. (Take for example the Prime Minister’s statement made after last year’s Pride: ‘And to think they’re complaining about the narrow security perimeter… Well, next year there won’t be any police, you’ll have all the freedom you want. All you have to do is ask. I can’t wait to tell the police to stand down because that’s going to cut costs by at least 800,000 euros.’ This could be understood more as a threat than as an expression of support for the LGBT+ community.) Thirdly, the minority cabinet member must not be under pressure to conceal his or her identity or advised to downplay it. If we want a radically different society, everyone must be able to be open about their orientation in public without consequences or pandering to the wishes of those who may ‘dislike that sort of thing’.
If the choice of Ms Brnabic is really well-intentioned and designed to make Serbia a country where diversity is desirable, the Prime Minister would do well to take part in the 2016 Pride March together with her. He might equally well propose a law under which Ms Brnabic, and many of her fellow citizens who are members of the LGBT+ community, could legalise their partnerships. Further, the Prime Minister could also demonstrate the honesty of his intentions by (at least) exerting his influence to ensure cases of violence against LGBT+ people are resolved. There are many steps that would have to accompany the symbolic selection of Minister Brnabic. So far there has been no indication that any of them will actually be taken.
The author is the Civil Rights Defenders programme director for the Western Balkans.
Translated by Civil Rights Defenders