Serbian police arrested more than 30 people as thousands of LGBTQI+ activists turned out for Belgrade’s EuroPride march on Saturday, despite a government ban.
The event had been designed as the flagship event of the EuroPride gathering. But the Home Office banned the march earlier this week, citing security concerns after right-wing groups threatened to stage protests.
Although the march passed without serious incident, local media said clashes broke out between counter-protesters and police.
The Interior Ministry had also banned any counter-demonstrations, but some far-right groups have vowed to gather outside churches.
Serbian Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin warned in a statement that “we will not tolerate any violence in the streets of Belgrade, nor illegal marches”.
British model and activist Yasmin Benoit said she had been to many gay pride parades “but this one is slightly more stressful”.
“I come from the UK where everyone is more together and it’s more commercial,” she told AFP.
“But here is really what Pride should be,” she added, referencing the societal struggle behind the movement.
“We are fighting for the future of this country,” said Luka, a Serb attending Saturday’s event.
Despite the official ban, the demonstrators were able to march in the rain for a few hundred meters between the constitutional court and a nearby park, a much shorter route than initially planned by the organizers.
Gay marriage is not legally recognized in Serbia, where homophobia remains deeply entrenched despite some progress made over the years in reducing discrimination.
The Balkan country, a candidate for EU membership, had come under intense international pressure to allow the march.
More than 20 embassies – including the United States, France and Britain – had issued a joint statement urging authorities to lift the ban.
There was a heavy police presence around the Pride rally, with officers pushing back small groups of counter-protesters brandishing crosses and religious insignia.
The Interior Ministry said 31 people had been arrested.
The authorities did not give any details on those detained, but AFP journalists saw several counter-protesters being taken away.
According to N1 television, there were scuffles between the police and the counter-protesters, some of whom threw smoke bombs at the officers and damaged several vehicles.
The US Embassy had urged its citizens to avoid the event “due to the potential for unruly crowds, violence, as well as possible fines”.
Human rights groups and the EU had called on the Serbian government to reverse the ban.
“The Serbian government’s decision to cancel EuroPride is a shameful surrender and implicit punishment for bigotry and threats of unlawful violence,” said Graeme Reid, director of the LGBT rights program at Human Rights Watch.
At least 15 members of the European Parliament have announced that they will join the pride march as a show of solidarity.
The Belgrade Pride Marches in 2001 and again in 2010 were marred by violence and riots after far-right groups targeted the event.
Since 2014, the parade has been organized regularly without notable disturbances but with a strong presence of the police.
This year’s ban came just days after thousands took part in an anti-Pride protest in Belgrade, with biker gangs, Orthodox priests and far-right nationalists demanding the EuroPride rally be scrapped. .