BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbian police detained at least a dozen anti-gay protesters and shut down much of central Belgrade before a gay rights rally on Sunday, a year after a similar parade was cancelled in this conservative Balkan state.
A Reuters witness saw police mounting a major security operation detain a dozen anti-gay protesters and clash with others, and a security official said police had taken some potential troublemakers into custody overnight.
“It has to be that way,” said Nevena Tarlanovic, one of the gay rally organisers. “It is not strange because that is the kind of country we are. You are familiar with Nazis and similar organisations.”
“We are hoping we are going to get rights or normal living in this country, for getting a job.”
Traditionally conservative Balkan societies have been slow to adjust to open homosexuality, and last year a Serbian gay parade was cancelled because of threats to attack the march.
On Sunday, small groups of anti-gay youths tried to gather hours before the event was due to start.
“This city is besieged by oppressive police and weirdos. We will not fight overwhelming force. Our moment will come to get even with them,” said skinhead Nebojsa, 30, a baker by profession, who met other gay haters at 6 a.m.
Ultranationalist groups said they would photograph those taking part in the rally and post them on a website.
Milija, 28, a construction engineer who describes himself as a religious nationalist, said “This government wants to protect a deviant, wicked and non-Christian minority against the good, law-abiding majority. And they speak about democracy. This is ridiculous, not a democracy.”
Surveys show that about 60 percent of Serbians disapprove of homosexuality, and one third of those say violence should be used to interrupt gay public events. In the last Belgrade march in 2001, dozens of gay activists and policemen were injured in clashes with nationalists, neo-Nazis and hooligans.
Many see Sunday’s march as a test of Serbia’s readiness to become a more modern, open society after the intolerance that fuelled the 1990s Balkan wars and made Serbia a pariah state.
Police, who said they would deploy about 5,000 officers, set up four security rings in central Belgrade, closing off a large area to traffic and restricting access to residents. Several churches cancelled Sunday services.
Despite strong opposition from the conservative Serbian Orthodox church and other religious communities, Serbia, which wants to join the European Union, adopted an anti-discrimination law last year to meet conditions for visa-free travel to the EU.
The hostility to gays shown in Serbia is common in the Balkans. Bosnia’s first gay festival, held in 2008 in Sarajevo, was interrupted when hooded men, some shouting Islamic slogans, attacked participants.
Albania has never hosted a gay pride parade. Earlier this year its parliament approved a law defending homosexuals and other minorities, a requirement for visa-free travel to the EU.
Writing by Adam Tanner, editing by Tim Pearce