An attack on a German activist during an LGBT rights conference in the Serbian capital on Saturday could force the country's leaders to allow the holding of pride marches — if they are serious about joining the European Union.
The fate of Belgrade Pride, scheduled for Sept. 28, was already being closely watched by EU officials. They had already called out Serbian officials for canceling last year's pride march as evidence that Serbia still had not established the human rights protections necessary for joining the EU, in an official progress report on its road to membership. Now Germany, one of the most powerful countries in the EU, has particular interest in seeing evidence that Serbia's police can protect minorities. And German officials intend to keep Serbia in the hot seat.
"This incident is again a strong sign that there is a major problem inside of Serbia with violence, hate crimes, and should be taken as a starting point … to address this much more [forcefully] from the side of the Serbian government," said Terry Reintke, a member of the European Parliament from Germany who was in Belgrade over the weekend to participate in the same conference as the victim of the assault. The conference was focused specifically on promoting LGBT rights as Serbia moves towards EU membership. Germany's human rights commissioner, Christoph Strässer, was also in town for the conference and held meetings with the country's top security official and the prime minister, according to German activists.
Reintke said investigators were still working to establish if the attack was motivated by homophobia. The victim was assaulted at a food stall in the early-morning hours of Saturday. Closed-circuit video shows the German man being hit on the head once from behind and then falling unconscious. A witness told other activists that the assailant had said, "We don't want foreigners in Belgrade," but organizers of the conference told BuzzFeed News that one of the victim's friends got the impression that the attackers knew he was gay even though they didn't say so explicitly.
The victim's name was initially withheld, but Dragana Todorović, lobbying and advocacy consultant with the Serbian LGBT rights group Labris, told BuzzFeed News on Monday his name is Dennis Honnig. He is now awake and speaking, and will be transferred within a few days to a head trauma facility in Germany.
But even if Honnig wasn't targeted because of his sexuality, the incident forced Serbian officials to demonstrate they would protect LGBT gatherings. Three men were arrested in connection with the attack within 24 hours, and police were mobilized to protect participants in a street protest held by conference organizers on Saturday, which concluded peacefully. Police officers were deployed to protect the conference venues throughout the day, and guarded the sites of social events held on Saturday night.
News of the attack immediately raised questions about its implications for Serbia's planned pride march. Security officials ordered LGBT activists to call off last year's pride march hours before it was to begin, saying they couldn't protect marchers against threats of violence that had been issued by ultranationalists in a press conference days earlier. Pride events in 2011 and 2012 were shut down for similar reasons. Government leaders said they did not want a repeat of 2010, which ended in a massive riot in which at least 100 were injured and political offices and news organizations were attacked.
Bjorn Van Roozendaal, program director of the Brussels-based European branch of the International Lesbian and Gay Association and one of the Belgrade conference organizers, said some Serbian activists voiced concern that government officials might use the attack as a pretense for canceling the parade once again. But the international dimension of the potential hate crime may also provide a means of putting increased pressure on the Serbian government to move ahead with LGBT rights.
"The way that we look at it ... based on this incident, it is the time for the Serbian government to indicate that they stand up to violence and protect minorities," Van Roozendaal said.
Todorović of Labris, the Serbian LGBT rights group, said she was encouraged by the government's immediate response to the incident. The country's top security official, Interior Affairs Minister Nebojša Stefanović, visited Honnig in the hospital and called conference organizers "directly on our mobile phones to tell us that he is doing all he can to investigate what happened and that this is really not acceptable" — a level of direct communication with LGBT activists that she said was unprecedented.
That reflects a change in tone from the government, Todorović said, which she attributes in part to the fact that Stefanović took office in April, replacing the minister who was responsible for canceling the previous pride marches. The ruling Serbian Progressive Party also won a decisive victory in March, giving the government a security that might make them more willing to tolerate a backlash that could come from allowing pride to proceed.
"It seems that they are in favor of the pride parade taking place," Todorović said, though she added that the government has given no concrete promises.
As the European Union has expanded towards the east, pride marches have become something of a litmus test of whether states are sufficiently committed to protecting minority rights to allow them to become members. The holding of a pride march was seen as an important milestone for neighboring Croatia before becoming a full member last year, and another neighbor, Montenegro, mobilized half its police force to secure a 2013 pride march that was aimed in large part to pleasing the EU officials considering its membership application.
EU leaders have had less leverage in Serbia, which officially applied for EU membership in 2009 but has had its progress stalled in part because of ongoing conflict with Kosovo. Kosovo fought a bloody war for independence from Serbia in the 1990s, and Belgrade still doesn't recognize its independence even though it formally voted to secede in 2008 and it is now pursuing EU membership as well. Serbia reached a detente with Kosovo last year when both countries agreed that neither would try to block the other's EU membership, an agreement that potentially removes a major roadblock to Serbia's membership. As a result of the accord, an EU report declared 2013 "a historic year for Serbia on its path to the European Union."
But that same report said, "It was in particular regrettable that the pride parade was banned for the third year in a row on security grounds; this was a missed opportunity to demonstrate respect for fundamental rights." The attack on Honnig has given even greater resonance to whatever decision the Serbian government makes about pride — this is an opportunity that activists are hoping Belgrade won't miss this time.
"Our politicians want to make good when it comes to Germany and other powerful supporters in the EU," Todorović said. "So, I think that this has forced them to commit even more to securing the pride parade and making it happen."