An historic Pride march was marred by homophobic attacks, in scenes not seen for a decade.
On Saturday, thousands of people marched through the streets of Zagreb under the motto “Pride forever”, celebrating the Croatian capital’s annual LGBTQ pride march.
It was a landmark day, as the mayor of Zagreb joined the march, becoming the first to do so in the event’s 20-year history. But according to organisers, the march coincided with a spree of assaults targeting LGBTQ people who participated.
“For the first time in ten years… there was an outbreak of homophobic fascist violence, in a series of attacks, arsons and insults, in different parts of the city,” Zagreb Pride organisers said in a statement.
“This is the first time since 2011 that we have witnessed violence before or after the Pride Parade. Violence against LGBTIQ people on the streets of Zagreb… is once again becoming a serious problem for our society.”
According to Croatian news website Index.hr, around midday on Saturday, two women were assaulted by an unknown man, who blocked their passage with his car, yelled anti-LGBTQ slurs and spat at them before fleeing.
Later that day, a man carrying a rainbow flag was set upon by a group of strangers, who punched him and set the flag on fire. According to police, five people have been arrested in connection to the attack.
In another incident, a teenage girl carrying a rainbow flag was assaulted and robbed by four men. They pushed her to the ground, stole the flag and fled.
Nikola Biliskov, a scientific researcher based in Zagreb, and one of several people who came to the victim’s aid, spoke to VICE World News. He said he was attending a festival in a park with friends when they found her “out of her mind, crying”.
“We immediately asked her what happened, but she just cried, holding her arm, which was swollen,” Biliskov says.
“After we managed to calm her down and give her first aid, we called the police. They wanted to portray it as a disturbance of public order and peace, and then as the mere theft of a flag, but we did not allow that.
“We insisted on the correct processing of the case by police and to characterise it as a hate crime. It was a totally cowardly act.”
A spokesperson for Zagreb’s police department told VICE World News police officers responded “immediately” to at least one report of a violent hate crime on Saturday and apprehended the perpetrators, but declined to comment further.
Ivan, who asked to be quoted only by his first name for privacy reasons, was a participant in Zagreb’s Pride march. He told VICE World News he was accosted by three men, who surrounded him and stole his rainbow flag.
“They were telling me not to wave it around and it’s nothing to be proud of,” Ivan said.
“They only returned it to me when the people around me got involved and probably that’s why there was no further physical confrontation. However, it didn’t shake me too much because I’m numb to such attacks anyway.”
Social attitudes towards LGBTQ people skew conservative in Croatia, a majority-Catholic Balkan country that joined the European Union in 2013. A survey of Croatia’s LGBTQ community in 2019 found 60 percent of respondents had been physically or verbally attacked due to their sexuality or gender identity.
Last year, in a highly publicised incident, an effigy of a same-sex couple was set on fire at a carnival in the small town of Imotski in southern Croatia to protest a Constitutional Court ruling giving gay couples the right to foster children. In the latter half of 2020, gay men were beaten up and set on fire in a series of brutal attacks in parks around Zagreb, as VICE World News reported at the time.
Rainbow flags are frequently the targets of vandalism in Croatia. According to a report by ILGA Europe, in 2020, there were at least six incidents in the country involving rainbow flags being torn down or set on fire.
In May, on International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, two men, who were unaware they were being photographed by journalists at a nearby press conference, attempted to tear down rainbow flags flying at Zagreb’s Square of the Victims of Fascism.
Days earlier, in a video posted to Instagram, four men were shown setting a rainbow flag on fire in Rijeka, about two hours from Zagreb. The video was allegedly posted in response to a court ruling giving same-sex couples the right to adopt children.
Last week, an MP belonging to the right-wing Most party, Nikola Grmoja, announced he planned to introduce legislation to “protect children” from “sexual content and LGBTQ propaganda” as part of an “anti-paedophile law”. Grmoja was backed by his party’s leader, Bozo Petrov.
A similar law passed in Hungary last month, banning LGBTQ content in educational materials and TV shows for minors. It has been criticised by human rights groups and European leaders. The law has been likened to Russia’s 2013 “gay propaganda” law, which monitors say has led to an increase in attacks against LGBTQ people in the country.
In a statement, Zagreb Pride blamed Grmoja and Petrov for “spreading intolerance” and inciting the attacks at the pride march. In response, both MPs announced on Sunday they are suing Zagreb Pride.
Zagreb Pride organiser Franko Dota told VICE World News the “outburst of violence” on Saturday was probably caused by a number of factors, but recent “homophobic and very, very intolerant rhetoric” by some of the country’s right-wing politicians had created “a general negative, homophobic atmosphere”.
He said that as LGBTQ people become increasingly “visible” in Croatia, they are becoming targets for “accumulated hatred”.
“Our younger generation are more out than ever in Croatian history. They are more proud, more open, more free about their identity,” Dota said.
“[LGBTQ people] are more visible not only on pride day, but throughout the year… so we are witnessing a rise in hate speech and hate crimes more than in the past.”
Another factor is the COVID-19 pandemic, which Dota said has left young people feeling restless. Croatia has not fared well during the pandemic, with more than 360,000 cases and 8,000 deaths in a population of four million. The country currently has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Europe.
“In Zagreb these days, youth are usually gathering [outside] because bars close earlier due to the pandemic,” Dota said.
“So many different people coming from different spheres of life, with different ideologies and values, are now forced together. A combination of these things did in a way spark or push some fascists and homophobes to attack on Saturday.”
Ivan, who was harassed after participating in Zagreb Pride, said he feels “lucky” he wasn’t badly hurt.
But he said he has been attacked before on three separate occasions, both verbally and physically, and that he is now used to facing homophobic violence when he goes out in public.
“It sucks but sadly that is my country.”