Several government ministers in Croatia will join a Gay Pride march set for this weekend amid threats of violence from opponents, saying it was a test of democracy for a country due to join the European Union next year.
Last year's event, held in the Adriatic city of Split, plunged into violence as police failed to protect the marchers from angry locals who pelted them with eggs and rocks. Several people were injured and at least 30 arrested.
Several nationalist and war veteran groups have issued warnings against this year's June 9 march in Split, calling it a "shameful provocation by sick people to which we will respond".
In an unprecedented move for the Balkans, where gay rights are largely ignored and Pride marches are few and far between, the liberal centre-left cabinet openly approved of the event. Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic called on Split residents to show tolerance and accept "standard democratic practice of Western Europe".
"The eyes of the European Union will be focused on Split on Saturday ... The gay population does not threaten anyone and we just have to accept them," Milanovic told Media Servis, a local electronic news provider.
Similar marches have been held for a decade in the capital Zagreb under heavy police protection, but with a relatively few incidents. The EU's delegation in Zagreb said in a statement on Wednesday it would be watching carefully.
"We are encouraged by government members' plans to take part... but at the same time we express our concern at some homophobic comments by the local (Split) authorities," the statement said.
Split Mayor Zeljko Kerum said he would not take part in the Pride, an event he said was disapproved by most Split residents. Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic, who will join the march together with Interior Minister Ranko Ostojic, a native of Split, and three other cabinet ministers, said violence might even complicate Croatia's progress towards EU membership.
"This is a time when we are laying the foundations for the exhaustive (EU) monitoring report in October, on the basis of which many member countries will ratify our accession treaty," she told a news conference on Tuesday.
"Should the Pride March be thwarted, it could be a problem for Croatia, it would be against our own laws and discrimination bans," she said.
The Split city council, dominated by a centre-right coalition, had demanded that the parade take a different route and stay away from the city's scenic waterfront, where last year's attacks took place. The organisers refused to comply and the interior ministry, which will dispatch almost 900 policemen to guard the marchers, also said there was no reason to alter the route.