Central and Eastern Europe’s peak season of 2014 Pride Parades is about to get underway – or, in the case of some capital cities, not, as authorities impose the now-customary bans.
From May 31 throughout the month of June, dates have been named for Pride Parades, from Moscow to Belgrade, Bucharest, Zagreb, Sofia and Istanbul, among others. In some of these cities, they will be lively events, with hundreds or even many thousands of participants and onlookers.
In others, the strongest turnout may be of police in body armour, and not unlikely, skinheads and “football fans” ready to hammer home their intolerance.
Few cities in Central and Eastern Europe have long traditions of Pride Parades, given that for those that were under communist rule, such forms of self-expression were impossible, while in the past 20 years, organisers of LGBT events have run up against official and court bans as well as strident vocal opposition from the Orthodox Christian Church.
In some cases, for example Belgrade, events either have been smaller-scale than planned or not held at all.
Arguably, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has the strongest line against Pride events, given the country’s specific homophobic laws and the Russian ruler’s signature rigid stance on the issue.
Moscow Pride was planned for May 31 2014, but for the ninth year in a row, already has been officially banned.
LGBT activist and regular Pride Parade organiser Nikolay Alekseyev reportedly has vowed that the event, customarily intended to mark the anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Russia, should go ahead. Alekseyev has previously won in the European Court of Human Rights against Russia on the Pride Parade issue, but Russian judges see things differently. In June 2012, courts in Moscow ruled a 100-year ban on gay pride parades.
Ahead of the May 31 Pride Parade planned for Nicosia, the first-ever such event in Cyprus, the picture seemed very different.
The Cyprus Pride Festival, a 15-day event, has the endorsement of Nicosia municipality, the European Commission, the Commissioner for Administration (Cyprus’s ombudsman) and the President of the Cyprus Youth Board, as well as a long list of foreign embassies.
But back on mainland Europe on the same day, May 31, the situation in Serbia was reminiscent of that in Russia – the two are geopolitical allies and both are Orthodox countries – even though Serbia’s laws are by no means as Draconian as those of Russia.
Optimistically, Goran Miletic of the Belgrade Pride Organisation Board reportedly has in mind as longer Belgrade Pride Parade than previously, “and it will feature a number of cultural events and activities, including exhibitions and concerts,” Serbian news agency Tanjug quoted Miletic as saying.
For LGBT activists in Belgrade, there have been years of struggle in trying to hold a Pride Parade in the Serbian capital. The first was planned in 2009 and there have been plans every year since then. When the 2010 one proceeded, there were street clashes as participants came under attack from homophobic crowds who came to confront them.
Belgrade Pride has been cancelled four times, most recently in 2013 when again, authorities cited “security reasons” for imposing the ban.
A week later, on June 7, comes Bucharest Pride, part of a new-style GayFest in the Romanian capital, to last from June 2 to 8. Going by local media reports, however, turnout in the past has not been huge, with a reported 400 people attending the 2013 event, which was the 10th anniversary one.
Slovenia has a longer track record. According to activists, in 2014 the Slovenian LGBT movement celebrates 30 years, given that it was in 1984 that the Magnus festival, themed “homosexuality and culture” was held in Ljubljana.
“After three decades of individuals efforts we have many things, we have the oldest film festival in Europe, non governmental organisations, lesbian library, publishers, clubs and a Cafe, we have literary awardees, lesbian and gay families with adopted children and legal battles won,” according to the site of the organisers of the Ljubljana event.
“But first and foremost we have a community built on the awareness that all of us, friends and strangers, are, despite numerous differences, alike in the way our lives over and over again cut into the expectations of others and the things others take for granted. Perhaps we differ in the colour, the size and brand of the shoes in which we stand in our own closets, but each one of us is faced every morning with the dilemma if, how many times and how we will open this closet.”
In Greece, Athens Pride, to be held on June 14, is the 10th such event.
The 2013 message claimed the spirit of Athena, for whom the Greek capital is named:
“Athena, the Warrior Goddess of Wisdom is the very spirit of our city. The Parthenon, the temple built in her honor, is a global symbol. This year (2013), Athens Pride embraces and enriches this symbol in a slogan with a dual meaning: In Greek, but for an accent mark the name of the goddess Athena is identical with that of the city Athens, the protectorate she won with the gift of the olive tree.
“We, the LGBT people of this city are an integral part of Athens and its symbols. Likewise, this city and its symbols are ours, just as they belong to all those who honor the Goddess of a Democracy that fights for justice.
“With the wisdom of the lawmaker goddess of our city on our side, we fight for equality and claim the public space, symbolically with the Athens Pride Parade and in reality all year long. We battle with her for the harmonious coexistence of all those who love peace and the people of our city.
“The goddess Athena conforms to neither gender nor epoch. The wisest warrior of the gods and goddesses dresses as a soldier. Legend has her as a virgin. What we do know is that she resisted men and had no sexual relations with them. Like a lesbian,” the Athens message said.
June 14 is also the date for Warsaw Pride. In the Polish capital, events have been held in spite of vehement stated opposition in the past, including from the mayor.
The 2013 Pride Parade in Warsaw proceeded without the patronage of Polish president Bronislaw Komorowski, who had been offered it, but declined.
Also on June 14, there is Zagreb Pride, the 12th annual such event in the Croatian capital. As with a number of other LGBT events in the northern hemisphere summer, organisers of Zagreb Pride take their inspiration from the Stonewall Riots and the Gay Liberation Front.
In this list, it is notable that some of the countries are within the European Union and some not. It appears that, in the region, one of the largest if not the largest Pride Parades takes place in a non-EU state: Turkey.
Istanbul Pride is traditionally held on the last Sunday of the pride festival in Turkey’s largest city, this year being held on June 29.
In 2013, the 10th year since the first Istanbul Pride, reported attendance was 50 000, somewhat of an increase from the reported turnout in 2003 of 30 people. Such is the scale of Istanbul Pride that it is part of the tourism industry’s calendar, especially those catering to LGBT clients (“also planned: a sunset cruise dinner party, city tour and a Turkish hammam experience,” said one offer).
In Istanbul, the customary starting point of the Pride Parade is Taksim Square, iconic for its place in the recent months of anti-government protests that began over the Gezi Park issue.
But in EU member and Turkey’s neighbour Bulgaria, the Pride picture has been less bright. Its history is also shorter.
The first Sofia Pride was on June 28 2008, marking the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall riots. Over the years, the Pride parade has undergone the customary harassment from homophobes, has had to be conducted under a heavy police escort, is the target of routine calls from the Bulgarian Orthodox Church for the municipality to order it cancelled, while on the other hand – as in other countries in Central and Eastern Europe – it attracts expressions of support from ambassadors of foreign countries, especially those of the EU and the United States.
In Bulgaria, an attempt by far-right ultra-nationalist minority political party Ataka to get Parliament to approve homophobic legislation – not dissimilar to that of Russia in making public manifestations of “non-standard sexuality” illegal – found too little support to be approved.
In 2013, the Pride Parade in Sofia was moved from June to September, because of organisers’ concerns about heightened tensions in the city amid mass anti-government protests, while the day initially planned for the event also was to see a meeting in the Bulgarian capital of the Party of European Socialists, a member party of which is part of the unpopular ruling axis.
There was another nexus with day-to-day politics in 2011, when Sofia Pride coincided with one of the episodes of the unofficial redecoration of the Soviet Army Monument. In that episode, the figures on a frieze on the monument were restyled to be, not Soviet heroes, but figures from comics and popular culture.
As noted on the Sofia Pride website, “participants quickly saw the symbolic link and added to the colourful composition…several gay flags”.
Perhaps one of the most sensitive locations for a Pride march right now is the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, a city which has seen dramatic confrontation, violence and even death on a considerable scale in recent months.
The first Kyiv Pride Parade was on May 25 2013, when both the country and the city were under different political leadership. Coincidentally, this date, a year later, was the one on which Ukrainians elected a new president and residents of the capital, a new mayor.
In all, the first Kyiv Pride had about 75 participants, with a huge police presence. According to an account from the time, the location of the march was only disclosed to the participants a few minutes before it started and they were taken there by bus, escorted by police – and when it was over, they again left under police escort. Reportedly, about 1500 police were deployed to escort the event.
To evade homophobic attackers, participants hopped from one form of transport to another, changing clothes to avoid being spotted by would-be attackers. Earlier, during the demonstration, 10 people who broke through the police cordon and tried to assault the participants were detained and kept in custody until the event was over.
Notably, the Kyiv event was held in spite of the district administrative court approving an application by the city authorities of the time to ban the event.
In 2014, the question will be what attitude will be taken by the new authorities in Kyiv and whether that country’s wave of political change will be expressed regarding a pride parade as a free-of-expression manifestation of the struggle for LGBT rights.
But then, in the summer light of 2014, all that is clear is that wherever in Central and Eastern Europe there are plans – successful or not – to publicly wave the rainbow flag, the picture tends to be different.
Planned Pride Parades 2014 include:
Moscow, Nicosia, Belgrade May 31
Bucharest June 1
Ljubljana June 7
Athens June 14
Warsaw June 14
Zagreb June 14
Istanbul June 29
Thessaloniki June 20
Sofia June 21
Budapest June 27
Kyiv July 6
(Main photo: UNAIDS)