BELGRADE, Serbia — The posters appeared overnight on walls in downtown Belgrade.
They showed a muscular crowd brandishing nationalist banners above the ominous words: “We are waiting for you.”
No target was named, but there was no doubt about for whom the threat was intended.
The posters were just the latest step in a campaign of intimidation directed against gay rights activists who planned to hold a “pride march” though the center of the Serbian capital on Sept. 20.
Tension had been mounting for weeks as Orthodox Church leaders and nationalist politicians condemned the planned parade and a coalition of right-wing groups, skinhead gangs and soccer hooligans threatened violence if it went ahead.
Serbian authorities knew from past experience that the threats should be taken seriously. When gay Serbs last tried to organize a march in 2001 it was broken up by a mob of hundreds of right-wing youths who left many activists beaten and bloody.
Faced with the risk of repeat attacks this year, the government told the organizers they couldn’t guarantee safety and the event was canceled, to the joy of the anti-gay movement.
One ultranationalist group hailed a “great victory for normal Serbia” over “Satanists and infidels.”
With the city tense, beatings of foreigners in Belgrade that left an Australian tourist and French soccer fans in hospital were blamed on suspected nationalist thugs. One Frenchman remained in a critical condition a week after his group was attacked in a popular Belgrade Irish pub. Liberal Serbs were horrified by more international news headlines portraying Serbia as a violent, intolerant backwater.
They want to show a different side of their country and point to video messages of support that leading Serb celebrities gave to the gay rights campaigners and the pledge of President Boris Tadic to crack down on extremist groups.
Even European gay rights campaigners praised the way much of the Belgrade media handled the issues and point to anti-discrimination legislation introduced by the Serb government earlier this year as a model for other nations in the region.
“There’s been a lot of coverage in Serbia … . It’s not like some other places where the issue is hidden away and the media does not want to talk about it,” said Nanna Moe of ILGA-Europe, a gay rights organization based in Brussels.
“They have one of the best anti-discrimination laws in the whole of Europe.”
Homophobia runs deep in conservative societies in much of Eastern Europe, but has been given a particuarly violent edge by Serb nationalists who see it as a “foreign” tendency which undermines traditional values.
The gay rights issue illustrates wider rifts across Serbian society almost a decade since pro-democracy protesters toppled nationalist strongman Slobodan Milosevic who was blamed for orchestrating much of the bloodshed that tore Yugoslavia apart in the 1990s.
While many support Tadic’s attempts to take Serbia into the European mainstream with closer relations and even membership of the European Union, anti-Western sentiment runs deep.
Nationalists would prefer to see Serbia develop a close relationship with Russia, with which it shares a Slavic Orthodox heritage. They are heartened by plans by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to visit Belgrade in October.
Others would like to see Serbia steer a path between East and West, like Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito, who helped found the Non-Aligned Movement in the 1960s.
Although Tadic has hinted that Serbia may submit an application for EU membership before the end of this year, his Harvard-educated Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic proposed that Serbia and other former Yugoslav states host a summit to re-invigorate the Non-Aligned Movement.
While there’s broad public support for drawing closer to the EU, NATO membership remains a taboo subject. Serbs are still angry over the 1999 bombing campaign by the Western alliance in response to Milosevic’s violent crackdown on ethnic-Albanian separatists in Kosovo.
The ruins of government buildings blasted by NATO warplanes continue to scar the Belgrade skyline. Kosovo remains a hurdle to Serbia’s closer relations with the West given widespread resentment over the decision by the United States and most EU nations to recognize the breakaway territory’s unilateral declaration of independence last year.
Paradoxically, NATO membership could be relatively easy if the Serbian government wanted to join, while its hopes of joining the EU are unlikely to bear fruit in the near future.
NATO officials are keen to avoid Serbia becoming a potential island of instability in Europe as other Balkan nations sign up for alliance membership.
Croatia and Albania joined in April, Montenegro and Bosnia are expected to submit applications for a “membership action plan,” and Macedonia could join quickly if it resolves a dispute with Greece over the country’s name.
However, EU membership is complicated by public opinion in Western Europe which is indifferent or hostile to the prospect of more poor eastern nations joining following the entry of 12 new members so far this decade.
Serbian democrats fear a nationalist backlash if the country is not seen to benefit from closer ties with the West. They say that it’s vital that the EU sticks to a plan to relax strict visa restrictions in January to enable Serbs to travel, study and do business more freely in the rest of the continent.
“Many Serbs have bad views about Europe, because they’ve never been there. It’s important to learn from each other and exchange experiences,” said journalist Jelena Stevanovic, from the Belgrade daily Politika. “Serbs are very frustrated with the visa system, we feel as if we are in a cage.”