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