Radical right in SEE seeks political gains by attacking gay pride parades


The study of so-called radical rightist ideologies and politicians is receiving increasing public attention throughout Europe. In this context it is important to identify the diversity and internal divisions of these political movements. In many respects the differences and similarities can be accurately described based on geographic location. Taking this model as a working hypothesis, in the coming months Political Capital will present the striking differences of the Western and Eastern versions of far right ideologies, with special emphasis on the social context, as well as the issues and topics constituting the organizational building blocks of the far right. In our first study we analyze the position of the far right in respect to the gay rights movement with a special focus on Balkan countries aspiring to enter the European Union.



Fault lines running east and west


The massacre committed by Anders Behring Breivik in Norway appears to represent a watershed in thinking about far-right ideologies. Since the attack there has been a growing consensus among the European public the in the past decade Western decision-makers have been excessively preoccupied with Islam radicalism while they overlooked threats posed by the proliferation of extremist right-wing ideologies. Presumably, this is related to the relative integration of the radical right in Northern and West Europe; parties promoting such ideas have accommodated to democratic political institutions. In contrast, some countries in Southern and most in Eastern Europe present an altogether different picture.


In essence, the ideologies of the far right in the West and the East are essentially the inverses of each other. The Western and Eastern versions are both characterized by neo-populism, i.e., giving simplistic and provocative answers to socially divisive issues. However, those in the East are often also ‘neo-Fascists’ in the sense that in their self-definition and symbols they find inspiration in the political legacy of totalitarian regimes active in their respective countries between the two world wars. The far right in Western Europe is characterized by shrill Islamophobia while it is not anti-Semitic, in contrast to the East European version that is strongly anti-Jewish for the most part and often pro-Muslim (see Hungarian Jobbik). When it comes to the state and the economy, most far-right movements in the West are neo-liberals, while their East European counterparts are advocates of a strong state. They also show significant differences when it comes to their attitudes toward minorities. Discriminating policies of Westerners can be described as the intolerance of the tolerant (Cas Mudde), i.e., they are hostile to immigrants rejecting liberal values and violating the rights of, for instance, women and gays. While Breivik himself, according to his book, is rather hostile to gays, the organizations he refers to are typically more ‘homophile’ than homophobe.


In contrast, East Europeans are fundamentally intolerant of minorities, where the rejection of sexual minorities in but one typical case in point. In South-Eastern Europe most centrist parties are also hostile or ambivalent when it comes to this issue. Obviously this is a reflection of the social environment; in these countries the public is profoundly hostile to gays, demonstrated by its rejection of considering their public presence and rights as a public issue and the frequent atrocities accompanying gay parades.


The recognition of gay rights: tensions between internal and external requirements


In the Balkan countries the issue of expanding gay rights regularly creates a gap between foreign-policy strategic considerations and social attitudes. In Western Europe there is the persistent worry that, aside from problems created by ethnic tensions, homophobia is a major stumbling block on the road to the European Union. Accordingly, when trying to navigate down that road the governing political elite must demonstrate its tolerance of sexual minorities, while the public in these very same countries is fanatically and often aggressively intolerant of homosexuals, of their “exhibitionist” parades and rejects the extension of civil rights. However, this often limits the political elite’s scope for action on this issue and leads to a unique double-talk. Politicians are required to show open-mindedness to the outside to demonstrate having done their “homework” on rights issues while, fearing a popular backlash (reflected at the polls), internally they handle the issue more gingerly.


In the former Yugoslav republics the legal status of homosexuals underwent impressive development in the past few decades (see the map below). At the same time, the process has yet to override conservative social and political reflexes and visceral opposition. Of course, in already more tolerant Western countries there are examples where the granting of rights has improved public attitudes towards homosexuals; legislation can contribute to the promotion of social tolerance through the extension of legal rights. This has been clearly demonstrated in Spain where the tolerance of homosexuality increased after the legal approval of gay marriages. There is reason to believe that the positive effects of extending rights will bring benefits to the former Yugoslav republics as well (albeit, slowed by an ambivalent political attitude).


Graph 1: Non-discriminative legislation covering sexual orientation (Source: Council of Europe)


Public opinion towards homosexuality


While specific countries show significant variations, it is safe to say that the population of no Balkan state can be described as tolerant and no significant improvement can be reported in this area.



In the former Yugoslav member states prejudice against homosexuals can be studied through an analysis of data collected by the World Values Survey (WVS) and the Gallup Balkan Monitor. Based on WVS data, responses to the question “what would you say if a homosexual moved next door” clearly show that Slovenia and Croatia represent the most tolerant countries in the region. Based on the same data, the republics of Serbia, Albania, Moldova and Montenegro appear to be the most prejudiced. Looking at the averages in the Balkan region, typically around 60% of the respondents would be unhappy if a homosexual moved next door, although this finding closely matches data measured in some other East- Central-European countries (e.g., Hungary). 


Gallup Balkan Monitor's findings show a similar picture. Based on its survey Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina are the most intolerant countries. The survey also shows that in this context Croatia is the most tolerant (Slovenia was not covered by the survey). Albania and Montenegro are in the middle of the field in this survey.


Taking a closer look at specific issues one finds that people in Balkan countries are the most hostile when it comes to the expression of homosexual preferences (48.9-82.5%), followed by homosexual relations (50.3-75.1%) and a majority of the respondents (40.9-71.1%) also agree that homosexuals should not perform public duties (e.g., teaching), while respondents are more tolerant on the issue of granting equal rights to homosexuals (28.5-49.2%). In the case of Serbs, apparently the most intolerant society, four out of ten respondents (43.8%) oppose granting equal rights to homosexuals, and seven out of ten would categorically oppose the appointment of a homosexual teacher (71.1%), two-thirds believe that in general homosexuality is reprehensible (75.1%) and eight out of ten respondents would ban all forms of expression of homosexual orientation.


Although in Croatia, the most liberal country, the corresponding figures are significantly lower, they are still extremely high by West European standards. It is important to realize that even Croatia lacks a liberal camp of any substance: only 20.4% of the respondents agree that homosexual relations should not be condemned, only 13% consider it acceptable that homosexuals openly express their identity and only one in four (25.5%) would trust them with the performance of public duties, e.g., teaching. When it comes to equal rights, respondents appear to be thoroughly perplexed: one third are ready to grant homosexuals equal rights (32.4%), one third would deny them the same (34.3%), and another third (33.3%) has no firm position on the issue.


What explains such extreme attitudes toward homosexuals in these countries? Based on the findings of a survey extending to 35 countries (including Croatia, Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina) economic backwardness, gaping social/economic inequality, the post-Communist legacy and religion are major factors and strong predictors of hostility towards homosexuals.


The past two decades in the region have been marked primarily by ethnic and military conflicts and tensions generated by the formation of new nation states – an environment hardly conducive to the development of tolerant attitudes. This may explain why tolerance towards homosexuals shows no significant improvement in the former republics of Yugoslavia (with the exception of Slovenia). However, based on the above development model it is conceivable that in the coming hopefully peaceful decades (even as the role of religion in unlikely to diminish in the region) with economic development attending the period of consolidation, decreasing social inequality and the receding legacy of the one-party socialist state the populations in the former Yugoslav republics will gradually develop more tolerance for homosexuals.



The  rights of sexual minorities


Nowhere in Eastern Europe do consensual acts between same-sex partners constitute a crime (any longer). In some former Yugoslav republics (Croatia, Slovenia and Montenegro) this has been the case since 1977, and other countries passed similar legislation after their respective regime changes (see Table 1). The next phase of decriminalisation has involved the age of consent; in this case some countries, like Serbia, passed laws after 2000. LMBT communities and advocacy groups representing sexual minorities have an active presence in all these countries.


Table 1: Decriminalisation of same-sex consensual acts between adults


The relationship/cohabitation of same-sex partners has been legally recognised only in Croatia (2003) and Slovenia (2006), while other countries have yet to create the required legal framework. To this date, same-sex marriage is expressly prohibited in Montenegro, and even in Slovenia and Croatia.


In no country are same-sex partners allowed to adopt children, and some countries limit single-parent adoption, as well as artificial insemination. Same-sex partners may not adopt children in Croatia either, although a single parent may do so, and discrimination based on sexual orientation is prohibited in establishing eligibility. However, as the government agency authorising adoption must put the needs of the child first, in reality sexual orientation may become part of the evaluation process. In Slovenia, adoption has become possible thanks to an amendment of the family law which, however, is threatened by a referendum initiative. At the same time, artificial insemination is expressly prohibited for lesbians in Serbia and Montenegro.


Gays openly expressing their sexual orientation may serve in the armies of the former republics of Yugoslavia.


The overwhelming majority of these countries recognize the freedom of self-expression as a fundamental right, while there are significant differences when it comes to the ban on discrimination and the protection of sexual minorities, as well as their enforcement in practice. In a number of countries sexual discrimination is banned outright and in Croatia, for instance, it is treated as an aggravating circumstance in a crime. Specifically in respect to the rights of sexual minorities freedoms are guaranteed in the former Yugoslav republics making sex-change operations legal, and in Serbia and Montenegro the LMBT community enjoys legal protection in all spheres of life.


Gay parades in the region

Gay parades are events that simultaneously exhibit the following three features:

  1. the efficient organisational skills of LGBT NGOs,
  2. public opposition and the power of radical groups to take action against the gay community (e.g., in the form of intense and often aggressive demonstrations in Serbia),
  3. the political commitment and will of governments and their law enforcement agencies in protecting members of the LGBT community (government statements of support and assistance in organizing events, and the cooperation of the police and other law enforcement agencies in stopping and prosecuting counter demonstrators). In this context we found significant differences in specific former Yugoslav member states (see below).


In the past few years initiatives promoting the rights of sexual minorities have successfully overcome legal blocking gay pride parades. However, increasingly these events are also attracting violent attacks. Looking at Eastern Europe as a whole (not including countries in Central Europe) the most liberal regulations are being enforced in the former republics of Yugoslavia, followed in stages by the Baltic states, although it is impossible to identify a regional trend predicting where efforts aimed at enforcing minority rights may face extremist attacks. Incidentally, the current state of affairs carries the threat that the far right focusing its attention on these parades will monopolize the topic in the entire region and, as it had done in respect to ethnic minorities, may deepen prejudices and aggravate tensions between the majority society and the gay community.




The current government provides strong political support for gay parades. Besides supporting such events domestically, some Croatian embassies back parades organized in other countries as well – such as they did inHungary. The Zagreb Gay Pride has been organized annually since 2002.  In 2006, the city hosted the first international Eastern European Pride (The Internationale Pride). Anti-gay demonstrations during Zagreb events were mainly non-violent. In 2011, the tenth pride in Zagreb passed without major incidents and enjoyed the support of the government and the mayor of Zagreb as well. Yet the gay parade organized in the strongly right-wing conservative city of Split – the second biggest city in Croatia – a week ago was disrupted by violent anti-gay protests where several thousand anti-protesters confronted a few hundred participants of the actual march and police were unable to curb violence.



The first gay rights NGO in Montenegro was founded in 2011. Staging the first Pride Parade this year enjoyed the Prime Minister’s full backing, it was yet heavily opposed by the broader public, and raised some conflicts on the governmental side as well, following controversial statements of the minister of human and minority rights. The parade had been scheduled for this year but was subsequently cancelled. In early September 2011, a large-scale international conference to discuss the actual state of LGBT rights in the Balkans was held inDanilovgrad – the first occasion in SEE when such an event is organized by the government. However, this event remained in the shadow of the boycott of some important LGBT rights NGOs from Montenegro, who requested fulfilling certain conditions before joining any such event in the future. Nevertheless, the main outcome of the conference is the commitment taken by the government to implement, in co-operation with newly founded NGO, the Council of Europe Recommendation (2010) on measures to combat discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity. Concretely, once implemented, it will enable the couples of same sex to enjoy, under the domestic law, certain rights that are recognised to non-married heterosexual couples and thus eliminate discrimination of the LGBT population.



The first attempt in the country to organize a Gay Pride Parade in 2001 resulted in violent clashes between participants and protesters with the police seemingly unable to protect the safety of the parade. Government officials were reluctant to comment on the events and refused to condemn homophobic protesters. In September 2009 the parade was relocated outside the city centre in the wake of severe threats of anti-gay violence. The parade was subsequently cancelled.

Anti-gay violence once again came in the center of attention courtesy to the 2010 Parade where around 6000 outraged protesters clashed with the police. Buildings of public institutions, such as the headquarters of the ruling Democratic Party were targeted by riots. However, the intensity and tension experienced during the protests can be partly explained by radicals already raging at the recognition of independent Kosovo: protesters shouted ’Go to Kosovo!’ at policemen. Politicians were quick to condemn the violent clashes and a strong response against protesters by law enforcement officers was continued by hefty sentences at courts. The next Parade is scheduled for the beginning of October in 2011. Nevertheless, the Ministry of Interior has already moved to express fears that the Parade would pose a major security risk while claiming there was a European pressure on countries to organize this event.



Slovenia provides the most advantageous social and political environment for LGBT communities among former Yugoslav countries.  The LGBT movement in Slovenia has been up and running for over 25 years. The first LGBT film festival in Slovenia was organized in 1984. The first pride parade took place in 2001 as a solidarity act courtesy to an incident in a Ljubljana cafe where a gay couple was asked to leave.

Since then, the Pride Parade is organized every year and is traditionally supported by the mayor of Ljubljana and some important – mainly left-wing – politicians. A number of violent attacks against LGBT activists and places occur in the country (such as vandalizing gay cafes), but they remain rare and sporadic.


Kosovo, FYROM, Bosnia and Herzegovina

No Gay Pride parades have so far been organized.



Note that populist radical right forces in the Netherlands have been partly justifying their anti-Muslim ideologies by the homophobia of some Muslims (e.g. the list of the openly homosexual Pim Fortuyn, who was killed in 2002, or the Dutch Freedom Party led by Geert Wilders), and the Norwegian Progress Party, for example, accepted the cohabitation of homosexuals already in the 1990s.

Andersen, R., Fetner, T. (2008) Economic Inequality and Intolerance: Attitudes toward Homosexuality in 35 Democracies. American Journal of Political Science, 52(4), 942-958.

Obviously, in addition to the level of religious piety the dominant religion also plays an important role: based on studies, Orthodox and Muslim countries are the least tolerant of gay communities.