BELGRADE (Reuters) - Gay rights activists in Serbia held their first Pride march in four years on Sunday, walking through Belgrade streets emptied of traffic and pedestrians by a massive security operation.
Thousands of riot police with armored vehicles, water cannon, horses and shields sealed off streets leading to the site of the short march from the government headquarters to parliament, to prevent a repeat of running battles between police and hardline nationalists that took place in 2010.
Authorities banned Pride for the next three years, citing security concerns.
But with Serbia setting out on talks to join the European Union, the bloc has made clear it sees Pride as a litmus test of the country’s commitment to defend the human rights of all.
Hundreds of people took part, waving rainbow flags and blowing whistles as a police helicopter flew low over the city.
“I feel phenomenal. Our efforts of the past three years have borne fruit,” said Pride organizer Boban Stojanovic.
Asked about the scale of the police operation, co-organizer Goran Miletic told Reuters: “This is the Serbian version of the right to free assembly and speech.”
Homophobia is widespread in Serbia and other conservative societies in the Balkans; the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church last week compared homosexuality to pedophilia and incest.
Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, a former ultranationalist who has rebranded himself as a pro-Western reformer, said on Thursday he had “no intention” of joining the march, but several of his ministers and the mayor of Belgrade turned out.
“I‘m proud of my Belgraders and other citizens of Serbia,” Vucic told a news conference after the march.
“We didn’t do this because of the EU,” he said, “but out of respect for the constitution, the law and respect for all, regardless of how hard it might be or how far it might conflict with our own personal views.”
A number of small incidents were reported, but nothing on the scale of 2010 when shops were trashed, buses set ablaze and dozens of police officers and rioters were injured.
An opponent standing at the edge of the police cordon, who gave his name as Mihailo, said: “It’s shameful that we should block the capital to allow a few hundred individuals to demonstrate their perverted ideas. We’re entering Europe at the cost of every single Christian value.”
As Sunday’s march ended, a group of about 30 people tried to break through police lines guarding the premises of liberal independent broadcaster B92, known for years as a bastion of free speech in Serbia. They lobbed flares and stones, injuring one police officer.
Taking part in the march, the EU’s envoy to Serbia, Briton Michael Davenport, told reporters: “This march is an important step in the protection of fundamental human rights in Serbia that all people must enjoy, including the LGBT population.”
Additional reporting and writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Andrew Heavens