Dire week for Belgrade’s reputation

Obraz clerico-fascist symbol defaced

Obraz clerico-fascist symbol defaced

This last week really has been terrible for Belgrade in terms of its reputation internationally and amongst its foreign residents.

On Wednesday 16th we had a British tourist shot and wounded outside Freestyler.

The following night, a mob of hooligans attacked a bar full of French fans and brutally beat one of them – Brice Taton – nearly to death. Other fans and the Serbian barman were also injured in the attack.

On Saturday the Belgrade Gay Pride March was cancelled after the government capitulated to threats of violence from extremist groups.

On Sunday the 20th an Australian tourist – James Brown – was attacked by two men in Kalemegdan.They were probably the same extremists who had beaten the government into submission with mere threats, mopping up perceived homosexuals from “their” city.

[Update 22 Sep 2009: It appears these were just the ones that made it t the papaers. There were a spate of attacks on foreigners in the run up to the parade]

The one indisputable positive thing we could claim about Belgrade was that it was a safe, friendly city for foreigners.

That reputation has taken a near fatal blow in one week and the it is the same tiny band of thugs and extremists that are responsible for it all.

Let’s not panic though. Its is not nearly as bad as it looks (although its pretty bad).

The shooting seems to have been a genuine freak “accident” in that the British tourist was not targeted for attack, but rather hit by a stray bullet from a firefight between mobsters and “security” (aka other mobsters).

The attack on the French fans was no doubt related to the heightened aggression of the extremist element in the run-up to the Gay Pride Parade, but it is still essentially football hooliganism and not an attack on them because they were foreigners per se. Meanwhile the authorities have arrested 11 of the estimated 30 hooligans who took part in the attack. They are facing up to 30 years in prison for their crime – which has correctly been determined as attempted murder.

I suspect that James Brown, the Australian who was attacked,  was targeted by extremists who were cruising around looking for gays to beat up even though the parade had been cancelled.  I am not suggesting that Mr Brown is gay, only that the extremists had been primed for a fight for weeks and then it was called off. The next best thing was a foreigner.

[Update 21st Sep: Just saw that Belgrade 2.0 reached a similar conclusion]

The real sickener of the last week was the cancelling of the Gay Pride Parade.

This was a disaster at so many levels it is hard to decide where to start.  This outcome – a last minute capitulation – was the worst possible outcome, worse than not allowing it in the first place. And there will be consequences. Potentially big ones.

The government threw down the glove at the reactionary forces of the country (the clerico-fascists/ultra-nationalist/extremists/right-wingers etc) . It made a stand. The parade would go ahead and the full weight of the state security apparatus would protect the parade participant’s democratic right to march.

The extremists were furious. This was a direct provocation.

The Serbian Orthodox Church branded the parade Sodom and Gomorrah (reference to the Old testament cities destroyed by god for beings sinful). Obraz and other fascist groups plastered up posters saying “We are waiting for you”, a promise to attack the parade. Anti-gay and anti-parade defacements bloomed like carcinomas on building throughout the city.

The government and police were swift to denounce the extremists. Politicians from the president down all lined up to confirm the parade would be protected, and that they would not back-down from thuggery and intimidation. Workers were dispatched to paint over the hate graffiti. The parade organizers were assured that the state would uphold its responsibilities. It would not surrender to threats of violence and intimidation. It was going to make a stand on behalf of democracy and rule of law against fascism, bigotry and violence.

Then, the day before the parade, in a staggering about turn, the government abjured its responsibilities to protect its citizens and declared that it “could not” guarantee the safety of the parade. They ordered the organizers to cancel the event.

The extremists are delighted by their unexpected victory snatched from the jaws of humiliated defeat. They were on the verge of being defied and impotent to stop a gay parade in their home town. They knew they could not take on the massive police presence set to guard the parade. Their threats and warning had failed.

The game was over. Their bluff had been called. They had lost….

And then the government gifts them a dramatic victory! They did not even have to show up. No need to throw a rock, suffer a cracked skull or inhale teargas – their mere threats worked.

The government – for all its tough talk – turned out to be bigger cowards than the extremists. The government chose to go belly up the day before the march.

Instead of this being a crushing victory for progressive forces, we have Belgrade and Serbia suffering another massive self-inflicted wound. The whole world shaking its head in a sort of pitying shame for us.

I think its time to ban groups that flout the law. Its time for secular authorities to boot the church out of secular affairs and it is time that we were actually given a chance to stand up to fascists and thugs.

I absolutely think the threats were real. I am certain that Obraz had every intention of inflicting harm and death on the marchers. I also think they are a tiny group and even swelled by the ranks of hooligans, could have been contained and neutralised. What’s more it was the duty of state to do so. The government of Serbia openly promised to defend a democratic legal parade, and then de facto shut it down the day before because of illegal threats they had known about since its inception!

This was a failure of WILL not of MEANS. The hooligans managed to cow the full security apparatus of the state – to stare it down – without a single one of their thug footsoldiers having to do a thing except scrawl threats. This will embolden them and we foreigners and other outsiders (like gays) may very well bear the brunt of the consequences.

[Update 22 Sep 2009: I was dead wrong about the level of threat from the extremists. They were very well prepared to take on the police and attack the parade. It appears that the Intelligence Services (BIA) uncovered the scale and sophistication of extremists preparations and the government had no same choice but to cancel the parade where it was due to take place.]

Despite this setback, Belgrade remains and extremely safe, welcoming foreigner friendly place.

The overwhelming majority of Serbian people are nothing less than superb in their kindness and accommodation of we strangers in their city.

The decent people of Belgrade are both sickened and saddened by these recent events. They do not and never have represented the people or the city.

In many ways the last week is a microcosm of  Serbia’s recent history. A weak or collusive state does nothing whilst the worst of Serbian society wreaks havoc in the name of “ordinary Serbs”. The world looks on and titters: “Those savage Serbs, nothing has changed….”

But things HAVE changed. Massively. And the parade is a squandered opportunity to show it.

And there are some very positive signs that the government may be trying to claw back the initiative:

MoJ calls for ban on extremist groups

The Justice Ministry will work towards the disbandment and outlawing of all groups that propagate violence, says the ministry’s State Secretary Slobodan Homen.

37 right-wingers remanded in custody

Belgrade police have arrested 37 ultra-right wingers, filing criminal charges against five and charging the remaining 32 with public order offenses.

That last report should ell you something. That is the fascist hard-core. 37 people. This is the terror that paralysed a 21st century European state.

Thirty       seven         people.

[Update 22 Sep 2009: It look now like it was more like 3700 hard core extremists most likely supported by “ordinary citizens”. I think what is most terrifying is the scale and organisation of the extremists and the real threat that ordinary citizens may have joined in against the parade.]

8 Comments Dire week for Belgrade’s reputation

  1. Sarah Correia

    Too little too late. The government should have made the issue of the extremist groups a stronger priority, instead of allowing grouposcules such as 1389 to make daily rallies in Trg Republik in honour of Radovan Karadzic, as well as seriously tackled the problem of violence closely connected to football supporters, aka organized hooligans.
    Or else, it should have assumed from the start that it wouldn’t allow the Parade due to security risks. You very keenly point that this was a failure of will, not of means. It is ridiculous to think that the serbian state lacks the means to face such a challenge, and I don’t even believe that it would be necessary to use the army.

    For us, friends of the city of Belgrade it is indeed sad to face this outcome. This is not to deny that things have been changing for the better, but rather to regret a missed opportunity to stand by the proclaimed values which helped this government get domestic and international support.

  2. NYCBG65

    Dear Sarah, as I agree with much that you stated, I too am appalled that they cancelled the parade. But, if on any given day you pass
    Trg. Republike and take a look at the Radovan Karadzic supporters that you are affiliating with 1389…all you will encounter is about 20 toothless 60year olds, burned out from years of inhaling cigarette smoke !
    These hooligans(kids) are too lazy and NOT committed nor dedicated enough to any long term causes! I think they get “heated-up” in the spur of the moment…..one day it’s a soccer match, the next day its the gay parade, and the next something else………I wish they would be that brave and fight to put a ban on cigarette smoke in Serbian cafes and restaurants!

  3. Ronan909

    So if this was a failure of will & not means, what were that outlying factors for the governments abrupt change of stance? Some allegience to the orthodox church or that power exercised by government can still be compromised today? ie. Another example that corruption within the government still prevails.

  4. GBail

    There’s a little more to all of this to let you all know. First off, its more then just those few things. On sunday two foreigners were beaten when they stepped off of the train, two greeks were on the streets as well and beaten, and yesterday another foreigner was dropped off from a bridge, and there are more stories coming from the past couple days and now, they just didn’t end up in the hospitals from it so its not hitting the news.

    Also, the Serbian government and the organization already decided on Friday to cancel the parade, not on Saturday. The threats were too real and large, and it was more then a handful of thugs, it was thousands of people that had organized to cause harm at it with detailed guerilla like tactics. Just from republika srpska alone over 2,500 people were ready to be bused into Belgrade for it, plus thousands more from around the country.

    In one case on saturday over 200 people in Karaburma had armed themselves with guns and knifes, and they even had made bracelets and t-shirts to look like they were supporters of the pride. They had plans to infiltrate it inside before it was closed off at 11 am, and to cause harm from inside of it. Others also had detailed plans to attack people and wait for them after the parade in different places, where they were staying, en route, etc.

    Serious and grave harm was going to be caused, and the Serbian government knew it. They had to do damage control fast and cancel the parade or else as bad as the reputation looks now, it would have been a helluva alot worst if the parade went on on Sunday. Whatever measures they took a lot of people would have been seriously injured or killed, and they did try to take a lot of measures up in the past month.

    They had been organizing police escorts for everyone that was coming to belgrade for the parade, before and after, they tried and contacted with everyone from the organizations to the places they were staying, and they were ready to do it if they had to, but they spoke with the organizers and basically told them it is not going to go over well even with all of this protection that we give you and the organizers agreed in the end and cancelled it.

    They are dissapointed of course, but give the police and the organizers both a little it of credit and respect for cancelling this parade. It is sad that they had to bow down to extremism, and that is the fault of the serbian government over the past many years as someone stated earlier, but they were trying finally not to, but in the end they realized they could not protect the people and it was in the best interest of everyone to cancel it.

    Now this will spark debate amongst the politicians and people of Belgrade and serbia, and hopefully move the country more forward into doing more to break up these extremism groups, ban them, and prevent them from being able to organize so well in the future, but it will take time, and it could not be rushed and done within one or two months.

  5. jd

    @GBail et al

    OK, I think I spoke too soon.

    I am starting to think that there were substantial reasons the government acted as they did. The extremists were MUCH more organised than I was giving them credit for. Reports of arms caches, rocks disguised as apples, petrol bombs hidden in drains etc.

    I think the most telling statement came form the Interior Minister, Ivica Dacic:

    “It wouldn’t just have been members of extremist organizations congregating in the streets of Belgrade, but, according to information from the intelligence services, members of the public too, who aren’t members of Obraz or the 1389 Movement,” Dačić said”


    It appears that what tipped Dacic over the edge was the BIA (Internal Intelligence Service) revealing the extent of the extremists organisation, along with the prospect that the parade would be attacked not just by Obraz and 1389, but ordinary citizens.

  6. Sarah Correia

    Jonathan, last year I made a presentation in a conference in Belgrade specifically about these extremist movements, where I said that despite the fact that are a small minority, I considered them extremely dangerous and a threat to serbian society and to democracy. I also stressed the fact that certain positions from respected institutions like the Serbian Ortodox Church and from conservative circles directly benefited them and why.

    Unfortunately, some Serbs in the audience, all of them progressive people, considered my work nothing more than anti-Serb. Others, younger, thought I was right, but still I found very discouraging that people who have a certain level of influence within the progressive circles within the Democratic Party would think that a foreigner saying what I’ve said could be dismissed as anti-serb.

    In April I was given information by a credible source that the government and BIA were making moves to tackle the problem, namely by attacking their sources of financement (an issue that I didn’t have the possibility to investigate myself, but which I think is the key to uncover who is behind them). I was glad to know about that, and my source also told me that as their money was drying up, these groupuscules were shrinking and disappearing.

    However, this is an essential characteristic of such movements, they dissolve and reappear very easily due to their informality. If you’re interested I can send you my article, which is going to be published soon in a book.

  7. ExUKdweller

    Some of this seems blown way out of proportion to me, sure the homosexual situaution is a problem that will have to be overcome should Serbia want to become part of the EU. However the recent attacks on foreigners and shootings are o worse than happen in London on a weekly basis so why is it such an appauling issue in Belgrade? I know for one thing, i’d walk anywhere in Belgrade at night quite happily and without a worry. I only wish i could say the same for my old capital!

  8. Adam


    Belgrade is extremely safe for citizens and foreigners, that’s why these attacks are quite shocking and appaulling. Many foreigners, I’m sure, have been feeling less safe these days. Something I thought I would never say about Belgrade to be honest.

    Hopefully, there’ll be no more incidents and things can get back to the way they were.


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