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.
"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."