By Fedja Grulovic and Kole Casule
SKOPJE, June 29 (Reuters) - North Macedonia held its first Gay Pride march on Saturday, in a test of the conservative Balkan country's record on respecting minority rights as it seeks to join the European Union.
Gay men, lesbians and other members of the LGBT community continue to face discrimination and hate attacks across the Balkans. North Macedonia is among the last countries in the region to hold a Pride event.
Several hundred gay and human rights activists marched through central Skopje, dancing and waving a long, trademark rainbow flag. The event was also attended by state officials and Skopje-based diplomats.
"This event celebrates pride, love and diversity," said Linda, who is transgender.
North Macedonia, which is awaiting a date to start EU membership talks, must improve human and minority rights before it can join the bloc.
"There are far more people than we have expected ... hate speech of those who attempted to scare people away backfired," said Koco Andonovcki of North Macedonian watchdog Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, one of the event organisers.
As the LGBT rally took place, hundreds of supporters of right-wing organisations rallied in front of an Orthodox Christian cathedral, saying they were promoting traditional family values.
A pro-EU coalition led by Social Democrats and their ethnic Albanian partners have sought to improve the situation of LGBT people in North Macedonia, after replacing the conservative VMRO DPMNE party in 2017.
But rights groups and gay activists say LGBT people in North Macedonia still face discrimination in education, work, health and welfare protection, as well as facing hate speech.
Saturday's march marked the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York which kicked off the modern gay rights movement. Balkan countries such as Serbia and Kosovo have staged Pride marches. Bosnia is due to hold one in September.
North Macedonia this year changed its official name from Macedonia after reaching an agreement with neighbouring Greece, ending a decades-old dispute and opening its path to NATO and EU membership talks. (Reporting by Kole Casule and Fedja Grulovic; Writing by Aleksandar Vasovic;)
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