PODGORICA, Montenegro — Police deployed en masse and lobbed tear gas on Sunday at counter-protesters hoping to disrupt the first pride rally to be held in Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro.
Around a dozen people carrying Molotov cocktails were reportedly arrested before the march began. Top Montenegrin officials had given their support to the rally, which comes as the Balkan nation seeks membership in the European Union.
Interior Minister Rasko Konjevic had promised to deploy 2,000 police, who cordoned off several blocks in the city center, creating a two-block buffer zone on all sides of the march route. Police in full riot gear outnumbered marchers by at least 10 to one.
Marchers passed peacefully through the empty zone, wearing T-shirts with the slogan "Proudly Montenegro" over a picture of a giant handlebar mustache.
"In Montenegrin tradition, the mustache means you are proud and that you are a 'real man,'" said Danijel Kalezić, president of the group organizing the march, Queer Montenegro. "That is why we thought it was important to use."
As the march began, an explosion sounded in the distance — the first hint of the chaos unfolding outside. As government officials and foreign dignitaries addressed the LGBT rights activists, groups of dozens of young men were throwing stones at police and trying to breach the security perimeter. According to one police officer at the scene, police had requested permission to use their firearms to subdue the counter-protestors, but they ultimately regained control of the city streets with the use of teargas, riot shields, and billy clubs. Twenty officers were reported injured.
Organizers had prepared for the worst. Montenegro saw its first gay pride march in June, held in the coastal city of Budva, end in violent clashes with counter-protestors.
On Sunday, organizers kept the location of the march entrance secret until 11 p.m. Saturday night so attackers would not be waiting for people arriving for the march. In an email laying out safety procedures, march organizers with the group Queer Montenegro instructed participants to arrive in groups of no more than three people in order not to attract attention and to wear no shirts adorned with LGBT rights slogans. The email also ominously advised that if assaulted and "you do not manage to escape, protect your head with your hands."
Despite the violence on the perimeter, Queer Montenegro's Kalezić pronounced the march "a really successful event." Although the violence outside reinforced how embattled the LGBT population is in Montenegro, the mere fact that it took place shows "we will not give up," Kalezić said as he packed up parade posters.
During his speech to the rally, Kalezić announced that plans were already underway for the city's next pride march to be held next June.
Speakers lavished praise upon police, who were also warmly applauded by the participants.
Activists were heartened by the presence of Montenegro's minister of human and minority rights, Suad Numanović, which they took as a gesture of the government's commitment to protecting LGBT rights. No government officials took part in the Budva march.
The government has taken many steps to implement LGBT-friendly policies —including passage of a non-discrimination law in 2010, but activists have expressed the desire to see these policies translate faster into a better life for LGBT people in the country.
"In Budva, the message was ... this is the Montenegro which does not support LGBT people," said Ljiljiana Reicević, a march participant who also attended the Budva pride march. "But Podgorica is totally different. It proves that the government is stating, 'No, We will not allow this [violence], we will stop this, and we will protect you.'"
Numanović's primary audience, however, may have been the European diplomats who mingled in a tight clump before the march began, including Mitja Drobnič, head of the European Union's mission to Montenegro, and Laurent L. Stokvis, the Dutch ambassador to Serbia. Demonstrating progress towards securing LGBT rights is crucial to Montenegro's aspirations to one day be part of the European Union, Numanović told BuzzFeed.
"On the road to European integration, the government of Montenegro has shown its democratic capacity [and the pride march] shows that Montenegrin society is maturing in the protection of all minorities, including members of the LGBT community," he said.
That was the message received by Ambassador Stokvis. "I think it is of great significance that the LGBT community here is holding this pride [and] that it is being supported and it is being safeguarded by the Montenegran government," he said. "This of course a sign of democracy, about the right to assemble, the right to demonstrate, and the right to free speech ... important values for all of us, for the European Union and for the Netherlands in particular."
After the formal speeches concluded, several paddy wagons barreled down the empty streets escorted by heavily armed jeeps. Participants were loaded into the vans and then ferried through the streets where police were still struggling to contain the violence. The police radio squawked progress reports as they slowly isolated the rioters into small groups before making arrests.
Protestors were taken to a police location outside of town and held there for about an hour until the city was once again safe. The participants were then allowed to return to the city by taxi. They were encouraged to leave discreetly in small groups, just as they had arrived.
J. Lester Feder is a foreign correspondent for BuzzFeed and 2013 Alicia Patterson journalism fellow.