SPLIT LETTER: An ugly incident showed the less attractive side of Croatia as it made its final push for EU approval, writes DANIEL McLAUGHLIN
IT’S EASY to see why the people of Split are proud of Riva, the palm tree-lined promenade that runs along the waterfront of Croatia’s second city.
This is where Split kisses the turquoise Adriatic, blue-and-white ferries glide out towards sun- drenched islands and the hum of talk and clink of drinks drift from cafes beside the cool walls of Diocletian’s Palace, where the Roman emperor spent his retirement.
The European Union’s declaration this month that it would finally admit Croatia in 2013 caused no great excitement here. Split already feels quintessentially European and, with the arching of an eyebrow, its more urbane residents imply that the fractious club will be lucky to have them.
Split showed the world a very different face a fortnight earlier, however, when riot police replaced tourists on Riva and tear gas overcame the usual smell of coffee, cigarettes and the sea.
“It was incredibly scary,” said Sanja Juras of the Kontra group that helped organise Split’s first gay parade. “There was a huge crowd shouting ‘Kill the faggots’ and ‘You must die’ and giving Nazi salutes. They were throwing big rocks, ashtrays and firecrackers at us. Some people had to be taken to hospital by ambulance. The police completely failed to protect us.
“We were trapped for 45 minutes between this mob and the police. We asked them to evacuate us but they didn’t do anything. We didn’t know what would happen to us.
“There had been graffiti and threats made against the parade, but the city authorities made clear they didn’t support us and they didn’t use their powers to protect us.”
Some 10,000 people came out to protest against the 200-strong gay parade; more than 130 people were arrested and about a dozen were injured. As Croatia made its final push for EU approval after six years of faltering talks, this was not an image that the government in Zagreb wanted to project.
“I never expected that it would go this wrong,” said Dutch MEP Marije Cornelissen, who attended the gay march. “The violence in Split shows that Croatia still has a lot to do to properly protect human rights.
“I hope that the authorities realise that until they actually join in 2013, they must join forces with LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] organisations to firmly combat homophobia in Croatia.”
Juras said the clashes gave “a clear picture that homophobia exists here and is in state institutions”.
“Some anti-discrimination legislation has been introduced in the past few years – most of it under EU pressure – but not much of it is implemented,” she added.
Many residents of Split were horrified by the attacks, which ran counter to the way they think of their city as a sophisticated, liberal and laid-back place.
Some of them insisted that the protesters could not be real Split natives, but relatively recent arrivals from the hinterland where jobs are scarce, poverty is deep and Catholicism is extremely conservative.
Most of them live in grim tower blocks far from Riva’s polished white flagstones.
“There is definitely part of our society that is not always willing to accept different people and views,” Croatian president Ivo Josipovic told The Irish Times .
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