"This is a test case for Serbia," Marije Cornelissen, a Dutch member of the EU Parliament told me Sunday in Belgrade. "Tadic has decided that this is one of the things he's going to show the EU that we are a mature democracy, and that has worked wonders." She was joined at the event by several international figures, including the Dutch and U.S. ambassadors, both of whom commended the Serbian government's support for the parade as a positive example of its embrace of Western, liberal values. Earlier this year, Tadic met with gay activists in his office, and he publicly expressed his support for the event on numerous occasions.
Some activists, however, see a more cynical motivation in the government's newfound embrace of public expression for gay rights. "Tadic said that there haven't been any meetings with the EU in which [gay] pride wasn't mentioned," Milica Djordjevic, the head of an NGO that works with Roma street children, told me. When I asked her whether she thought his support for the parade was genuine, she said it was a concession to economic reality: Serbia has a nearly 20 percent unemployment rate, something that closer links with Europe would certainly alleviate. "If it was really a change, Tadic would come to pride," she said.
It's clear that Tadic faces enormous resistance to his support even for gays' right to associate, opposition often couched in religious language that will be familiar to veterans of gay-marriage debates in more mature democracies. The day before Sunday's march, I happened upon a small vigil organized by Orthodox clerics, at which a few dozen people bearing giant crosses chanted prayers and voiced their opposition to the march. Over the past several days, individuals I interviewed who opposed the march repeatedly invoked arguments about how homosexuality "destroys" the family and is forbidden by the Bible.
But in Serbia, a place where nationalism still runs strong, opposition to homosexuality often takes on a distinctly chauvinist tone as well. Sunday's march inevitably became wound up in the broader question of whether Serbia should join the European Union and other Western institutions, which many here still resent due to the NATO bombing campaign in the 1990s and the subsequent international war-crimes prosecutions of former Serbian leaders.
On Saturday, Oct. 9, a group called Serbiaki Dveri held its own rally and march to protest the next day's gay pride event. Many Serbian flags were on display, and patriotic music was sung. One woman, Lozanka Radojcic, standing at the front of the crowd, held a photo of her son in military uniform. When I asked why she was holding it, she informed me that he died in the Kosovo War. "We can't have a family because he was killed," she told me. The name of one of the ultranationalist organizations opposing the march -- 1389, named after the year in which Serbia lost to the Ottoman Empire in a battle for the then-province of Kosovo -- underscores how history (even ancient history) is still a potent force.
What the battle over Kosovo had to do with civil rights for gays was beyond me, but it was the sort of sentiment to which numerous speakers at the event appealed. "We are here because we want to defend family values and the territorial integrity of Serbia," Nikola Marinkovic, the organizer, said to loud cheers. "The government's project needs to be a family project and not support for a pride parade." He went onto to denounce Tadic's decision to spend money on extra policing for the gay rights march and proclaimed that his government had "destroyed everything and now they want to destroy the only thing we have left: our family values."
Though Sunday's parade has been overshadowed by the violence, that the event took place was enough for gay activists. "This is important because nobody, after this, can forbid the next one," Djordjevic, the NGO leader, says. "This is the first step." Some Serbians are already declaring victory. "I'm sick of sitting at home and being afraid," Danilo Milic, a 32-year-old lawyer told me. "We had enough people against these idiots and we won."