BELGRADE, Serbia — To the 500 or so Serbian gays and their allies who marched here last weekend, the riots engulfing the rest of the city were a world away.
Sunday, Oct. 10, marked the first time that a gay rights demonstration has been held successfully in Serbia, a deeply conservative, Orthodox Christian country that is slowly moving beyond a history marred by war and ethnic conflict. Its pro-Western president, Boris Tadic, is keen on bringing Serbia into the European Union, but must first transform the popular perception of his country as one that is xenophobic and intolerant, out of step with the European Union's reigning liberal ethos.
A crucial part of that effort is to improve the status of Serbian minorities, gays among them -- an agenda that has gone over badly with the country's still-powerful right wing. In 2001, ultranationalist hooligans violently disrupted a gay civil rights march, and one planned for last year was canceled at the last minute when government authorities told organizers that they could not guarantee the safety of participants. Tadic's critics, both left and right, accuse him of pandering to the European Union, and to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is due to visit Belgrade Tuesday, Oct. 12, to discuss Serbia's EU accession process, the whereabouts of fugitive Serbian general and accused war criminal Ratko Mladic, and the status of Kosovo.
Regardless of the government's motives in supplying 5,000 police officers to protect the parade -- and sealing off a major section of the city to let it happen -- Sunday's event was entirely peaceful, at least for parade goers. Indeed, Belgrade was two cities: a ghost town and a war zone. Riot police set up successive cordons on major thoroughfares and side streets to monitor attendance in the march, which started with a rally in a downtown park, creating a wide radius through which one had to seek permission to pass. At some point I lost count of the number of checkpoints I crossed, showing my press credentials and undergoing a pat down at each one.
About an hour before the rally began, small disturbances began between anti-gay protesters and police just a half-mile or so from the rally. Running toward the noise (which alternated between chants of "Kill, kill, kill the gays" and other crude slogans), I was passed by two police officers, one visibly injured. Moments later, as I tried to take a picture of the ensuing chaos, a screaming hooligan ran up to me, smashing my camera hard into my face. I ran from the scene before I could see what, if anything, the police did to him in response.
The march itself was largely uneventful. It lasted all of about 15 minutes, traveled the length of a few blocks, and competed against a background of sirens and the whirring of a police helicopter. By the time marchers had made their way to a downtown event hall for a party, reports of the violence engulfing Belgrade had begun to penetrate the bubble. "There is fighting all over the city," Jasna Cicmil, a 33-year-old Serbian woman, told me between frequent checks of her cell phone for text messages. "They tried to get into the hospital where injured policemen were put."
The gay Serbians relishing in a temporary victory over their more reactionary compatriots got a reality check immediately upon stepping outside the event hall, where a line of armored paddy wagons had lined up to drive them home. Police gently escorted parade-goers into the back of the trucks, shut a metal gate to lock them in, and sent them on their way.
Hearing reports of the riots dispersed across the city, I turned down a well-intentioned Serbian friend who had invited me into one of the trucks and ventured out on my own. I soon realized it would be impossible to get back to my hotel; there was a small-scale war going on between police officers and hooligans on one of the major streets leading up to it. The pleasant boulevard of Knez Mihailova, lined with clothing shops, cafes, and fancy stores, was being used by the anti-gay protesters as a fall-back point in their war against the security forces. Bricks and Molotov cocktails crashed near my feet, and the sting of tear gas hit my eyes. Behind me, I heard an elderly woman cry, "Fight brothers! This is traditional Serbia!"
Several hours later the violence came to an end and the costly toll had come in: some $1.4 million in estimated damages, nearly 150 (mostly police officers) wounded, the headquarters of Tadic's Democratic Party burned. As for the message that Sunday's event will send to Europe and the world, it's unclear. No matter how much effort the Serbian government made to ensure the safety of the parade, the very fact that it required 10 police officers for every marcher demonstrates just how far Serbian society is from reaching the point where it could become a full-fledged member of the European community.