Police in Belgrade have detained dozens of people after clashes with right-wing and ultranationalist protesters, who had said they would prevent a Pride march in the Serbian capital.
LGBTQ activists gathered for an international Pride march on Saturday a few kilometres away despite threats from anti-gay groups and a ban by the government of President Aleksandar Vucic late last month.
Ultranationalist protesters hurled stun grenades, stones and flares at a police cordon, which repelled the attack with batons and riot shields.
Hundreds of Pride march supporters gathered in the pouring rain, dancing and singing as their march was held on a shortened route.
“What’s most important is that we are gathering in the streets. This is a fight for human rights. This is the fight for our constitutional rights and this is the fight for a democratic Serbian rule of law,” said Marko Mihajlovic, one of the Pride event organisers.
“We need justice and freedom,” Goran Miletic, another organiser said.
Earlier in the week, the Serbian police banned the parade, citing the risk of clashes with far-right activists. But organisers on Saturday said they received guarantees from Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, who is a lesbian, that the event could go ahead.
Brnabic said at a news conference later on Saturday that 64 people had been arrested and 10 police officers were lightly injured, regional N1 media reported.
“Today we arranged 5,200 police officers on the streets of Belgrade; we had two incidents … and in both incidents, police members promptly reacted, solved the problem and ensured that the incidents don’t spread,” Brnabic said.
Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin warned that his agency “will not tolerate any violence on the streets of Belgrade and that it will strictly implement the law”.
Several incidents were reported earlier in the day with anti-gay activists hurling bottles at police and trying to break through the police cordons.
Serbian MP Bosko Obradovic, leader of the far-right Dveri party, said on Twitter the parade had an “anti-Christian agenda” serving as a “precursor to the complete NATO occupation of Serbia”.
The European Pride Organisers Association chose Serbia’s capital three years ago to host the annual event, hoping it would represent a breakthrough for a Slavic country that is traditionally conservative and strongly influenced by the Orthodox Church.
European Union and other Western officials, as well as rights groups, had urged populist Serbian President Vucic to allow the holding of the Pride march. But Vucic had said police could not cope with possible riots by right-wing groups amid the energy crisis.
Those right-wing groups, some of them considered close to Vucic’s nationalist government, were also banned from gathering on Saturday, but they said they would ignore the ruling.
Several legal appeals by march organisers against the ban have been rejected by Serbian authorities.
More than 20 embassies – including the US, France and the UK – issued a joint statement urging the authorities to lift the ban.
Gay marriage is not legally recognised in Serbia, a candidate for EU membership, where homophobia remains deep-seated despite some progress over the years in reducing discrimination.