Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Croatia: Skinhead Violence Mars First Gay March

The mob fury that was unleashed on a peaceful homosexual parade has exposed Croatian society's intolerance of minority groups
By Drago Hedl

Croatia's first gay pride event ended in tear gas and violence last month after the marchers were attacked by groups of screaming skinheads, some giving Nazi salutes.


Police were forced to intervene, making 26 arrests, and ten of the participants were taken to hospital suffering from a variety of wounds.


The display of public intolerance - which was broadcast around the world - occurred in spite of Interior Minister Simo Lucin's involvement in the June 28 procession and his calls for marchers to "love yourselves and fight for your rights".


Not all parade-goers were impressed by this show of solidarity on behalf of the centre-left government. One suggested that Lucin and other officials only showed up when they found out Juan Pablo Ordonez, head of the UN human rights office in Croatia, was going to make an appearance. "They organised the police cordon to protect themselves, not us," the protester said.


Viktor Ivancic, editor of the Feral Tribune, a left-wing newspaper based in Split, says the resulting furore exposed Croatia's self-image as a caring nation as a sham. "What occurred during this peaceful march of homosexuals, who had dared to come out of the closet after so many decades, has dispelled the illusion of a humane nation," he said.


The hostility was not totally unexpected. In Croatia, same-sex relationships are generally viewed as an abnormality if not an outright perversion, and equal rights are unheard of. Discreet gatherings organised in the bars and cafes of Zagreb and other cities usually become the targets of skinhead attacks.


Such assaults receive a lot of media attention, as in one notorious case when a French homosexual was beaten to death in Zagreb city centre a few years ago.


The parade-goers, however, could hardly be accused of being flamboyant. While the march was intended to draw attention to their unequal position in society, they dressed down so as not to provoke passers-by.


This did not deter the thugs. After the march ended, its organisers had to take shelter in a women's centre and did not leave until after dark, for fear of being attacked by skinheads and other drunks.


Marijo Kovac, who intended to lead the march, was attacked by three hooligans who stole his mobile phone. "I'm sorry that we came to the attention of the world in this way," he said.


However, the fact that the event took place at all is being seen as a minor victory. "Regardless of everything that happened, the first Zagreb Gay Pride parade succeeded," said Dorino Manzin, head of the Stepping Out group and one of the event's organisers. "We succeeded in telling Croatian society that we exist, that we are part of the population and that we will struggle for our rights."


Furio Radin, head of parliament's human rights committee, said the marchers had set an example to the rest of society. "Croatian homosexuals today gave a lesson to the citizens of Zagreb and showed they had the strength of character to publicly demonstrate for something that unfortunately is still widely unaccepted.


"Many well-known gay Zagreb citizens did not have the courage to take part in the event."


However, many right-wing nationalist parties condemned the parade. The extremist Croatian Pure Party of Rights released a statement describing the march as "sick", insisting it posed a danger to public morals and even the constitution.


The hard line Movement for Life and Family, which advocates measures to promote larger families, was equally dismissive, calling it "a public presentation of sexual abnormality".


The right-wingers' moral cue usually comes from the country's powerful Catholic church, which takes a harsh line on same-sex relationships. Glas Koncil, the church's official mouthpiece, recently described homosexuality as a "severe perversion", saying it was "incompatible with Catholic morality".


This intolerance, while widespread, is causing growing concern within other sections of society. Ivancic warns that the gay community has become the next logical target for hardliners now that the Serbian minority - the former "enemy within" - has to all intents and purposes ceased to exist.


Drago Hedl is a regular IWPR contributor