The first major Gay Pride parade in Serbia since 2002 triggered massive riots as anti-gay extremists clashed with thousands of Serbian riot police who were deployed to protect the marchers in downtown Belgrade today.
Rioters chanted “The hunt has begun!” and “death to homosexuals!” as they set fire to parked cars, smashed store windows and overturned garbage dumpsters in several of the repeated clashes with thousands of police officers, who had sealed off the streets around the march.
According to the Associated Press, rioters also fired shots and threw Molotov cocktails at the headquarters of the ruling Democratic Party. Rioters also attacked other political party headquarters and the state television station, as well as other unrelated targets in other parts of the city. Gangs of skinheads also reportedly hijacked a bus, ordered the passengers and drivers out, and pushed the bus down a steep street where it crashed into a pole at a main square. Looting also broke out in several shops downtown. Most of the violence took place after the Pride march had ended.
Dragan Djilas, the mayor of the Serbian capital, put the estimated damage at more than one million euros.
According to police, 78 police officers and 17 civilians were injured, 101 were detained and 53 remain in custody. Police say that at least one gay rights activist had been beaten unconscious. According to UK Gay News’ Andy Harley, who was in Belgrade to attend the march, a participant from Switzerland has been taken to a hospital with injuries after being attacked in the street two hours after the Pride march ended.
Pride organizer Lazar Pavlovic called the Pride march a “historic event,” and noted that the violence and immense security measures illustrated the dangers that gay people in Serbia face every day.
“It is a shame for me to march, to stand for what I am, and to have thousands of cops protect me from hysterical nationalists,” said Milena, 36, a lesbian activist.
Susanne Simon-Paunovic, a German married to a Serb who attended the rally said: “It was more like death march. The atmosphere was terrible.”
According to AFP, about a thousand people took part in the Pride march. The parade participants included several international observers as well as a well-known Serb actress, Mirjana Karanovic. Speakers at the event included the European Union’s delegation chief in Serbia Vincent Degert and Human Rights Minister Svetozar Čiplić.
One participant identified only as Nikola, said, “After the beatings, after living in fear, this is what we needed, to become visible.” That visibility continues to be a source of danger for LGBT people. Serbian ultra-nationalist groups threatened to photograph those taking part in the march and post them on a website for retribution.
Belgrade’s B92 radio and television reports that after the Pride march ended, police escorted participants safely out of the area. UK Gay News’ Andy Harley said that the area cordoned off by police was peaceful, “with most of the Pride participants unaware of the battles going on.”
The Serbian Orthodox Church condemned the parade in a statement on Friday, warning that such a move would “provoke others to act violently“:
“Behind this verbal triumphalism and boastful public appearance and the gay marchers, is actually internal anguish, despair and grief of the marchers, a clown cry for lost moral and spiritual balance and existential insecurity,” [Metropolitan] Amfilohije told weekly Pečat.
“One should never lose sight of eternal symbolism of Sodom and Gomorrah: all towns and people in them were destroyed, burned in sulfur and fire precisely because they turned natural use of male and female into perverted and unnatural,” he pointed out.
Amfilohije also condemned violence, saying that “”violence does not cure or triumph over evil, but instead multiplies it.” B92 has published a photo of an Orthodox priest speaking to rioters surrounded by police. B92 does not indicate whether the priest was trying to calm the situation or inflame it.
The parade, which was the first one held since 2002, was seen as a test of Serbia’s readiness to become a more modern and open society after years of warfare in the 1990s that was fueled by nationalism and ethnic hatred. The 2002 event, which drew 300 participants, was also marred by massive violence. Unknown attackers beat up Mario Kovač, the Croatian theater director who was to serve as Master of Ceremonies. Skinheads also attacked a club popular with the gay community, beating several of the patrons before police arrived to break up the fighting.
Smaller pride gatherings were held with little fanfare in 2003 through 2005. Last year’s attempt at a more prominent parade was canceled after the government said it could not guarantee the safety of participants.
Serbian president Boris Tadic condemned this year’s violence and vowed, “Serbia will guarantee human rights for all its citizens, regardless of the differences among them, and no attempts to revoke these freedoms with violence will be allowed.”
If there is an encouraging sign, it is that the police were vigorous in protecting the rights of LGBT people to hold a peaceful march in the capital. Serbia has aspirations for joining the European Union, and its observance of human rights and protection of minorities is a crucial element to its possible acceptance into the Union.
Update: One Pride marcher praised Belgrade police, saying, “The police were without question the heroes of the day. It makes me angry that some of them were injured, some of them seemingly seriously hurt.” Linda Freimane, a co-chair of International Gay and Lesbian Association (IGLA) Europe’s Executive Board, also praised Serb authorities: “Today, the Serbian authorities proved they are serious in their respect for everyone’s right to exercise their fundamental rights, and for European integration.”