Protests against the LGBTQI Pride procession in Sarajevo cast a long shadow over Balkan integration

People protesting in Sarajevo after initial proposal for parade was rejected in 2017. Photo accssed via BBC .

Before crowds could march through Sarajevo in Bosnia’s first ever LGBTQI Pride procession on 8 September 2019, they would be outnumbered by series of pre-protests across the city.

One such protest, calling itself the “Day of the Traditional Family”, featured people walking hand in hand with children and waving flags printed with traditional male and female sex symbols. Keynote speakers at the gathering called the Pride procession scheduled for the following day “a violation of civil rights”.

In a louder protest the morning of the Pride procession, a separate group chanting the Takbir held signs bearing such slogans as “What fools take pride in, the wise are ashamed of” and various homophobic slurs. “We’re defending the right of our children to be normal,” said Sanin Musa, a Quranic scholar and one of the event’s organizers, “[We’re here because] we disagree with the lifestyle of the LGBT population”.

When the Pride procession did occur, security measures pointed to an awareness of these threats. Heavily armed police officers accompanied the procession along a cordoned-off path. On various social media platforms, which had been buzzing since the announcement of the procession in April 2019, there were calls for violence. Earlier that week, Bosnian police forces had labelled the pre-protests “high risk”.

Nevertheless, the tone of the procession was jovial. A noticeably young crowd smiled as it moved along Maršala Tita, the historic city center’s main street, stopping symbolically in front of the National Government Building. The hashtag #imaizać, a pun on the concept of coming out, captured Bosnians embracing and performing songs.

Ancient hatreds?

Bosnia is the last of the former Yugoslav Republics to have held a Pride procession. This is not without cause. The 2008 Queer Sarajevo Festival, which intended to capture the Bosnian queer experience through art, was shut prematurely after organizers received death threats and several participants were physically assaulted by hooligans. Despite laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, same-sex marriage is not recognized in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 2017, two separate applications to hold pride parades were rejected by authorities, and this year, organizers of the Pride procession cited discrimination and exclusion from society as reasons for the march.

Some suggest that a resurgence of religious, and particularly Islamic, conservatism in the wake of the more recent war is to blame for intolerant mentalities. Protestors on 7 September contested this idea, framing their objection to the Pride procession as a question of civil rights concerning the “will of the majority”. In reality, the debate reflects the identity politics that still divide Bosnians over two decades on from the war.

Before the Communist Yugoslavia disintegrated in 1992, Bosnia was among the most ethnically diverse of its republics, and its citizens the least likely to vote along ethnic and religious lines. Today, Bosnia is made up of two federal entities, the Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which reflect ethnic dispersions (altered largely by ethnic cleansing) after the war. Studies suggest the majority of Bosnians vote according to their ethnicity and religion.

Some claim that politicians use opposition to members of the LGBTQI community as a means of consolidating their positions in the electorate. Ethnicity has to do with one’s perceived belonging to a group of inherent racial and religious characteristics, which set one apart from other ethnic groups. Identifying non-heterosexual and non-cisgender individuals as “other” might therefore be used to strengthen such feelings of political belonging.

Clashes over the Pride procession identify yet another source of division, this time between a traditional, practicing faith and a young, Europeanized generation. Several members of this younger generation of Bosnians appear eager to leave inherited divisions behind them. In a video about young queer Bosnians, Ada Sokolović explains that when she meets someone new, “I say please just don’t ask me about my faith, nation or sexual orientation. Ask me about what I like, what music I listen to, what my hobbies are.”

One step forward, two steps back

This comes in the wake of various attempts to incorporate Bosnia into the European Union. Despite applying for EU membership in 2016, integration has been slow going. For Bosnia, EU membership would mean being part of a market of 500 million people, with freedom of movement for people, goods, and capital services. The benefits to a country struggling with poverty would be immense.

Open homophobia might be slowing the process down. Bosnia, like many of the formerly-Yugoslavian republics, already has to contend with an image associated with violent conflict. Many media outlets called the Pride procession a “tolerance test”for the country.

“I’m marching today with my colleagues from the EU and Switzerland, all countries that stand for equal rights for everyone,” said Eric Nelson, the United States Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina, at the Pride procession. Nelson, who is openly gay, continued: “That’s what Bosnians and Herzegovinians want in their future, so let’s think about how to create that.”

Yet Bosnians themselves are not necessarily ready to face this challenge. The same day of the Pride procession, Mujo Aganović, a speaker at the Day of the Traditional Family, proclaimed to a cheering crowd that “not even the American Ambassador, with his [rainbow flag] on the American Embassy” had the right to “terrorize” Bosnian citizens with the procession. Earlier in 2019, the Bosnian presidency responded late to a follow-up questionnaire from the European Commission and left several questions blank.

There are still certain glimpses of progress. The mayor of Sarajevo did not outright call to ban the procession, and its organizers have already announced plans for a second parade.

If Bosnia wants to reap the benefits of the EU, it should reconsider the role played by intolerance in its identity politics. Whether its citizens are willing to overcome their divisions has yet to be determined.

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