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Serbia cancels gay pride parade

While gay rights activists claim official support, the government could not guarantee their safety.

Fans of Partizan Belgrade's soccer club display a banner that reads: "Gay parade shame of Belgrade," during the team's UEFA Europa League Group J match against Toulouse in Belgrade, Serbia, Sept. 17, 2009. The 2009 pride parade planned for Sept. 20 was canceled because organizers could not guarantee participants' safety. (Marko Djurica/Reuters)

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.”