Exclusive interview with Goran Miletic about Belgrade Pride: “I see a small but visible progress”

On Sunday 17 September 2017 the Belgrade Pride Parade will be more than a risky street gathering or a walking manifesto for tolerance and equality. It was impossible last year to forecast that in twelve months Serbia would have got the first lesbian prime minister in Eastern Europe and the second in the whole continent. But this fact, still shocking for a big slice of the Serbian population, actually happened and the decision of the President of the Republic of Serbia Aleksandar Vucic to appoint Ana Brnabic doesn’t cover up all the delays in reducing the levels of inequality, intimidation of independent journalists, flaws in the application of civil rights laws, the limited awareness of personal rights (as citizen as well as consumers) Serbia is still  .
We have spoken about these issues with Goran Miletic, one of the most prominent voices in Serbia about inequalities and power abuses, director for Europe of Civil Rights Defenders, the Swedish organization committed to protect and promote the human rights worldwide.

This year the Serbian Pride Parade will be the first held in an Eastern Europe country with a gay prime minister. Have you perceived any change in the attitude of your usual institutional interlocutors?  

Yes, I see changes. Institutions are a bit more open. This progress is not big, but it is visible. When companies start being supportive toward LGBT community (like institutions now), I will say that we have a big change.

In its 2016 report, Human Rights Watch said that “human rights defenders continue to work in a hostile environment in Serbia”. Has the situation changed for better in the meantime?

Similarly, as journalists, human rights defenders are under the pressure, especially when they are dealing with topics like war crimes and LGBT. You attempt to have public gathering that is regularly reported to police in advance could banned like in case of Belgrade Pride or commemoration for victims of Srebrenica genocide (Action 7000). I don’t expect that situation will change in the meantime, but I think that we will not have arrests or similar drastic measures.

Human rights are all about the quality of a democracy. Do you think it is possible to improve the civil rights without improving the democratic culture, at all levels, of a country?

I think that we need to start from laws and insist on implementation of those laws. That is important for the economy and it is important both for expats and local citizens that law will be implemented fast and properly. That is a key problem in Serbia. Democratic culture is something what we will have as result of long implementation of adopted standards.

One of the main civil liberties is the freedom of expression, including the freedom of press. This is also one of the areas that Serbia has been criticized for. Although, there is no media censorship on paper, the authorities have shown growing hostility toward independent and critical media in recent years. Another civil liberties report noted that “investigative journalists or those critical of the government frequently encounter aggressive rhetoric from senior officials”. Have you come across similar instances in the course of your work?

We do not have free media in Serbia for a long time. There are so many ways to control them, but mostly through money and advertising. We always say that “road of the money” should be followed if you want to understand something. Many available reports are providing enough information who are key owners of several advertising agencies that own 90% of advertising market in Serbia and can control all who will get them. If I am on power on Serbia, I will be more than happy to have critical media and more independent journalists. At the moment, all critiques are perceived as some kind of threat.

This year the LGBT Parade is the final event of a week-long, rich program with debates, conferences and film projections. More information on: parada.rs

Although the freedom of peaceful assembly and association is guaranteed by Article 55 of the Serbian Constitution, the presence of riot police is still required at a parade in support of LGBT rights. What can be done to mitigate this?

I think that time is crucial for this change. 2014, there were 7000 policeman on the street, 6300 in 2015, while Pride in 2016 was with 4500 policeman. We hope that 2017 parade will be held with less police than participants in the Parade. Crucial preconditions are preventive work of the police, zero tolerance on violence, full implementation of the law.

In 2012, the Serbian National Assembly adopted the changes to the Penal Code which now stipulate and regulate so-called “hate crime”, including those committed on the basis of someone’s sexual orientation. How much are these changes actually applied in practice?

 Unfortunately, we have ZERO judgments referring to the article 54. We have so many cases of hate crime but prosecutor and courts are never see them as hate crime. Nothing changes in this regard and we are trying to discuss this issue with Public Prosecutor.

In terms of human rights, including the rights of the LGBT community, Scandinavian countries are considered role models. If you had to draw a parallel between them and Serbia, what would you say is the reason why Serbia is lagging behind – the cultural differences, the differences in the level of tolerance, or the inadequate government policies?

Through history, homosexuality was always illegal in Serbia until 1994. However, homosexuality was illegal in Scandinavian countries too. The key difference is that law was fully implemented in Scandinavian (and Western countries), while in the former Yugoslavia, for example, we have only 500 judgements in the period 1951-1977. Unlike Scandinavian region, where law means a lot, this region was always bad in the implementation of laws.

Opinion of the person on the top of the state, personal opinion of law enforcement officers etc means much more than what is in the legislation. According to common opinion, law can always be adjusted in order to support views of the ones that are on power. That is not the case in Scandinavian countries. Cultural differences are visible between Balkans and Scandinavia, but the tolerance is something what could become reality in this region too. However, we need political will for that.

And let me add at the end that the change cannot be only a matter of political will. Some acquaintance contact me saying “I have started an association, give me some money”. I try to explain them that they have first to work without any financial goal to show their capabilities and then they can start being reliable. There is still a mentality based on shortcuts and personal connections instead of transparent process and common rights and duties. Civil rights can’t be easy-fixed by someone for his personal purposes, but they can be enforced only when large part of the population believe in them and put them in practice everyday.

Goran Miletic has a Master of Laws from Belgrade University and an MA from the European Regional Master on Democracy and Human Rights in Sarajevo.

He began working for Civil Rights Defenders in 2004 as a Programme Officer for the Western Balkans. Today he is Director for Europe. Goran is stationed at Regional Office for Europe in Belgrade.

Has collaborated Snezana Rakic

 

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