Serbia hosted a gay pride march Sunday, the first peaceful pro-LGBT demonstration in the country in more than a decade. The march through Belgrade, the nation's capital, was held under heavy police security to prevent a repeat of the violence that marred a 2010 demonstration in which hundreds of people were injured.
An estimated 1,000 gay activists and their supporters carried rainbow flags and signs — some bearing the message "Pride. Normally." — while marching along eerily empty streets with anti-riot police units positioned on almost every corner. The gathering was patrolled by several thousand policemen, who blocked off central streets and avenues throughout Belgrade.
After the unrest in 2010, Serbian authorities banned pride marches, citing security risks and the threat of violence by far-right groups and ultra-nationalists. Only minor scuffles were reported this year and a group of 50 hooligans stoned a police cordon set up to prevent them from approaching the demonstrators. A local photographer was slightly injured during the scuffle. Another group threw firebombs at a local television broadcaster, slightly injuring two policemen.
Police choppers equipped with cameras flew above the area, and a number of businesses, including a McDonald's restaurant, pulled down their shutters to avoid a repeat of the damage that resulted when riots broke out during Serbia's 2010 pride parade. Belgrade police said 50 people were brought in for questioning before and during the march.
"This is just a start," said Goran Miletic, one of the organizers of the march. "Next year, we will have less policemen, and less every year, until we will all walk free, with no need for such security."
Marija, 25-year-old student, came with her best friend to "show that not only gays support the pride."
"I hope that next time, even more people — gay or straight — will come out to show that we are all equal," Marija said.
Local media reported that members of special anti-riot police unit beat a brother of Serbian conservative Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic and two members of his security team as they tried to pass through a cordon despite warnings.
Speaking to reporters after the march, Vucic said he was "personally sad" about the incident, but refused to elaborate.
Vucic said Sunday that "there must be no violence during the pride as Serbia respects its laws and constitution."
"No one is allowed to jeopardize the others, no one should use violence against anyone else and the state's job is to prevent it," Vucic told reporters ahead of the march.
A number of foreign diplomats attended the parade, including the EU delegation chief Michael Davenport. For the first time ever, several Serbian ministers and the mayor of Belgrade joined the march.
"For the first time, the [government] institutions have publicly supported the organization of the pride and media reports were more favorable for the LGBT community," one of the organizers, Boban Stojanovic, told reporters Saturday.
On Saturday, the ultra-nationalist far-right group Dveri organized an anti-gay counter-march in central Belgrade. No major incidents were reported during the protest, which lasted several hours and was heavily secured by the police.
The head of the influential Serbian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Irinej, spoke up against the gay pride, saying it was "immoral" and "violently imposed by a gay lobby and their mentors from (western) Europe."