Right-Wing Threats Scrap Serbian Gay-Pride Parade

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Alexa Stankovic / AFP / Getty

Serbian police officers walk past graffiti reading "Death to homosexuals," referring to the aborted gay-pride parade in Belgrade, on Sept. 20, 2009

At first glance, the Serbian capital of Belgrade looks like any other major European city: its streets are lined with glitzy cafés and designer shops, its people smartly dressed. But sprayed in black on almost every wall in the city center are hints of a dark undercurrent — phrases like "Blood will flow," "We will get you" and "Death to f_____s."

Last weekend should have been a time of celebration for Serbia's gay and lesbian community, the first time it's been able to hold a gay-pride parade in the capital since 2001. But the parade, scheduled for Sunday, Sept. 20, was abruptly cancelled at the last minute after police said they would not be able to protect participants from attacks by ultranationalist thugs. In addition to promoting gay rights, the parade was supposed to show that a decade after the end of the Balkan wars, Serbia is a functional democracy, ready to join the European Union. Instead, the cancellation of the event raised a stark question: Can Serbia continue its march toward the West if it can't put an end to the intimidation tactics of militant ultranationalist groups?

In the run-up to the parade, the government had promised to provide security in the form of several thousand police officers to avoid a repeat of the 2001 gay-pride parade, which ended in turmoil when right-wing groups unleashed vicious attacks on participants. Only days before this year's event, politicians and top police officials said the parade would go on despite threats of violence. But in the end, Serbian Interior Minister Ivica Dacic said the risk of attacks was too high. "We're not talking about a handful of hooligans — there were several thousand people ready to attack the participants and the police with everything from Molotov cocktails to knives, iron bars and steel-ball slingshots," Dacic told the Blic newspaper on Tuesday, Sept. 22. "They also planned to attack Western embassies."

The cancellation shocked gay-rights activists and foreign observers alike. "I was disappointed to hear that the parade had been cancelled," Stephen Wordsworth, Britain's ambassador to Serbia, wrote in his blog on the embassy's website. "Those people who had wanted to demonstrate peacefully had lost. Those who were prepared to use all means to stop them had won." Some Serbian politicians were even more forceful in their condemnation: "The state has capitulated under threats of fascists," Zarko Korac, a parliament member from the Social Democratic Union party, was quoted as saying by the Serbian news website Pescanik.

Organizers blamed the government for doing nothing to try to restrain ultranationalist groups as threats against the parade intensified in recent weeks. Apart from covering city walls with menacing graffiti, members of the far-right groups 1389 (named for the year when Serbia lost to the Ottoman Empire in the Battle of Kosovo) and Obraz (the Serbian word for face) also made ominous comments to the media. "Everyone knows what will happen if they go ahead with that parade of shame, and the responsibility for that will be of those who organized it," Mladen Obradovic, a leader of Obraz, said in a television interview on Sept. 17. "They cannot expect to poke their finger in the eye of our nation and go unpunished." The same day, several French tourists were viciously attacked by soccer hooligans wielding iron bars while they sat at a café in downtown Belgrade following a soccer match. One of the men is still in a coma. Three days later, an Australian tourist was beaten up by thugs who thought he "looked gay," police said.

Police arrested several dozen extremists, including some ringleaders of the 1389 and Obraz groups, after the attacks, but they have mostly been charged with misdemeanors. Serbian Attorney General Slobodan Radovanovic has said he is considering banning both groups, along with some of the more violent soccer fan clubs in Serbia. But some Serbs wonder whether the government has the resolve to do anything, considering it has tolerated such groups for years. "The state has clearly lost this battle, but it can still win the war," says Zoran Dragisic, a security analyst and professor at Belgrade University, "provided our politicians finally show some guts."

Perhaps pressure from the rest of Europe will help. "We haven't heard anything from Brussels yet, but I am sure that the European Commission will express concern in its annual progress report [on Serbia's E.U. membership] in mid-October," Milica Delevic, the head of Serbian Office for European Integration, tells TIME. "Europe expects us not just to pass antidiscrimination laws but also to implement them and to create a political climate where you don't need 10,000 cops to protect a minority."