140 people were injured and 200 arrested over the weekend in the Serbian capital of Belgrade as ultranationalist rioters sought to disrupt a gay pride march going through the city protected by armed guards. As the country seeks to join the European Union, the embarrassing incident is just the latest to demonstrate the gulf between the "good behaviour" demonstrated by the Serbian government and the "bad behaviour" exhibited by a large segment of the Serbian population. Or at least that's how Brussels sees it, and that gulf continues to make EU officials very anxious.
The new tension this riot creates with Brussels is heightened by the fact that there were several EU officials marching in the parade to show solidarity – including an expected appearance by the EU ambassador to Serbia. Today Jelko Kacin, who leads the European Parliament's unit looking at Serbian accession, told the Associated Press that the riots "show an elementary lack" of tolerance for minority rights in Serbia and the "inefficiency" of the state in preventing this trend. The march this weekend was the first one to be organised since the last attempt in 2001 resulted in mass chaos and street brawls as nationalists and football supporters' clubs attacked the gay rights marchers. Another march had been planned for last year but was cancelled because of concern over the violence. This year the parade was protected by 5,000 police officers – which equals roughly three officers per pride marcher.
Budapest, Warsaw and Moscow gay pride parades have been met with fierce anti-gay demonstrations. But in Serbia homophobia has been marked by a particularly violent reaction that many see as consistent with the population's behavior toward other minorities such as Muslims and Albanians. Such high-profile intolerance is particularly damaging for Serbia because it has only been a decade since the country emerged from the pariah status it had during the 1990's Balkan wars, when Serbs committed atrocities in Bosnia and Kosovo. Since then bringing Serbia back into the fold of the international community has been plagued by setbacks, and even when Western-friendly politicians have been elected to office they do not seem to enjoy the popular support of the Serbian people, who in the eyes of many have never demonstrated contrition for what happened during the Balkan wars.
In 2008 Brussels was encouraged by the narrow election victory of President Boris Tadic's moderate pro-European party (whose headquarters were set on fire during the riots, according to reports). Since then relations with Brussels had been steadily improving. The EU made efforts to fast-track Serbia's accession talks and in December the Netherlands withdrew its objection to Serbian EU membership. But this weekend's events will make member states such as Holland nervous that even if pro-European politicians are making all the right gestures, they don't have the support of a population that remains seduced by nationalism and violently hostile toward ethnic and cultural minorities. Serbian defence minister Dragan Sutanovac summed up what many of the pro-Western politicians must be thinking when he told reporters yesterday, "It's a really sad day for Serbia."
observed, "It was more like death march. The atmosphere was terrible." And even for the marchers who escaped violence, the ultranationalist groups promised they would recieve their punishment later. They made efforts to take photos of the gay activists and said they would publish them on their websites to encourage retribution.
But as the EU reacts today with shock and anger over the riots, they should keep in mind that such violence, albeit at a lesser scale, has also met gay pride parades in existing member states like Poland and Hungary. The division between Eastern and Western Europe on gay rights is like night and day, with a clear fault line running down the centre of the continent. Gay pride parades in Western Europe may have become mainstream street parties, but head just a few hundred kilometres east within the EU and they are controversial demonstrations where participants are in real danger of violence.