The great Serbian novelist Milorad Pavic once remarked that Serbs always forget but never forgive.
Something of this attitude played out last Sunday as approximately 6000 demonstrators took to the streets in Belgrade, called into the streets by the ultra-right allegedly to protest and stop the Belgrade Pride parade. The last Pride event in Belgrade was many years ago and was broken up by fascist thugs who attacked Pride participants while the police looked on and hardly interfered. In the intervening years Serbian laws have been put in place with certain guarantees for human rights, but these changes have come in response to western pressure and have been crafted by politicians who show little real interest in human rights. They also came into being as Serbia was isolated internationally and then threatened with dismemberment. Kosovo has been taken from Serbia with little regard given to most standards of international law, the Serbian Republic enclave cannot develop politically or economically on its own terms and growing Turkish influence in parts of Serbia and Bosnia often seems to deliberately threaten Serbian stability. Toxic sludge from Hungary is showing up in Serbian waters. Inflation is running at about 8 per cent. There is much happening in Serbia which might cause people to panic or become frustrated.
The 6000 protesters were met in the streets by about 5600 Serbian police who protected less than a handful of Pride participants. Many of the police were poorly prepared for the fighting that followed. At the end of the day more than 150 people were injured, most of them police, and at least 240 people were arrested. The rioters attacked the Pride event, the Democratic Party offices, offices of the Socialist Party and the Liberal Democrats, RTS (national television), the Belgrade mosque, a number of embassies and many businesses. Serbian Orthodox Church involvement in the demonstrations and the involvement of established ultra-right groups was evident from the beginning of the demonstrations. Decentralized groups of hooligans and fascists appeared with professionally printed obscene signs and Molotov cocktails and fought police forces in coordinated running skirmishes throughout downtown Belgrade. It is rumored that these forces either sought to overthrow the government with a coup or are setting the stage for a future coup attempt. These rumors are so credible that the government has responded with a strong statement that it will resist being overthrown. The intelligence services have weighed in by stating that the Serbian state is secure.
Did the demonstrators really care so much about the few Pride participants and what they represent or is there more at stake? Clearly the right was able to mobilize anti-gay sentiment and did so with the help of some in the leadership of the Serbian Orthodox Church. But the right was also able to capitalize on other hatreds and fears as well and on the despair so many in Serbia feel as their country further divides and as living conditions continue to deteriorate for most Serbs.
Echoes and aftershocks of last Sunday's events have been felt in Parliament as certain far-right politicians seek to justify or excuse the violence and as others call for the legal banning of far-right organizations. Many of the parliamentarians who are seeking to justify the violence are at the same time questioning why the government sent in police forces who were not properly prepared for the confrontations. This allows them to opportunistically play to both sides of the issue and posture as the forces of disorder and order in the same moment. They also claim that the organizers of the Pride event are a collection of expatriates and NGOs, charges which make little sense to those outside of Serbia but which are potentially loaded and explosive within the country. A group of Serbian futbol fans also violently disrupted a futbol match in Genoa today.
Some points bear repeating: the Serbian government has been forced to defend people---gays and their supporters--who they do not care about; they have had to do so as a result of laws passed under western pressure and with the hope that Serbia might have a few crumbs from the tables of the world powers; the under-equipped Serbian police were cynically used and perhaps deliberately put in a tough position by some of these politicians; Serbia has received very little from the west for its structural and legal adjustments; the dismemberment of Serbia and what was Yugoslavia continues; the Serbian far-right represents a threat not just to human rights in Serbia in the immediate sense, but also to whatever is left of civil society in the Balkans; and this may well have been a coup attempt, or may lead to a coup in the not-so-distant future.
Serbs have not forgiven the west for the aggression launched against it and for having caused the breakup and dismemberment of Yugoslavia. What they have forgotten is that this was the project of an international far-right in alliance with neo-liberal economic forces and governments. This project could not have been accomplished without a worldwide push for capitalist hegemony and without the cooperation of certain Serbian far-right forces. Gays do not figure into the equation.
Hillary Clinton showed up in Bosnia and Serbia today to lecture people in both countries about what they must do next in order to enter the EU and civilized western Europe. She insisted once more that the Balkans must be remade in the image of the west and seemed deaf, dumb and blind to the disastrous results of such pressure so far. Some spokespeople for NGOs showed some unfortunate and badly misguided enthusiasm for her remarks. This raises other questions--were the riots possibly planned or provoked in order help or hurt the Obama/Clinton plan for the Balkans? Do they provide--or will they provide--a pretext or basis for the "shock and awe" and economic-political shock therapy needed to either remake the Balkans in the image of the west or drive it backwards?