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TIRANA (Reuters) - Albania's government has taken its macho-minded society by surprise by announcing plans to allow same-sex marriages, the first such move in the Balkans.
"Despite the debate the law might provoke, discrimination is unacceptable," Prime Minister Sali Berisha said at a meeting on European integration. "This law covers same-sex marriages and other problems of this nature," he added in statements posted on the government website Thursday.
Some gays have come out of the closet after the fall of late Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha, under whose rule homosexual relations were punished with jail terms.
Yet even today, most live secret lives to save themselves and their families the shame in a society strongly rooted in traditional family values. Across the Balkans there is little public tolerance towards homosexuals.
Muslim and Catholic leaders condemned the proposed Albanian law as "buffoonery" and same-sex marriages as "unholy."
Should Berisha make good on his plans, Albania would join European Union members The Netherlands, Belgium, and Spain in giving gay couples the same rights as heterosexual couples and would be the first in the Balkans to do so.
"Because of its position, Albania would attract the biggest number of homosexuals living in our (Balkan) region and beyond," Albania's Shekulli daily said.
As candidates for EU membership, all Balkan nations will eventually have to pass laws protecting sexual minorities from discrimination, but not necessarily approve gay marriages.
Elsewhere in the Balkans, EU member Slovenia offers relatively high tolerance although in June one gay activist was brutally attacked.
A year ago, the organisers of a Queer Festival in Sarajevo, decided to close the first gay festival in Bosnia after a group of 70 men threw stones, shouted homophobic slogans and beat participants, dragging some from their cars.
Posters had earlier appeared proclaiming "Death To Gays" and Muslim imams spoke out against the festival, claiming that homosexuality is immoral and contrary to the Koran.
In Macedonia, President Georgi Ivanov claimed during his recent election campaign "discrimination against gay and lesbian people is a myth."
In neighboring Kosovo, the constitution does not prohibit the same-sex marriage, saying "everyone enjoys the right to marry and the right to have a family as provided by law." But the law still does not allow same-sex marriages.
Albanian lawyers predicted a tough road ahead for the new proposal. Berisha surprised even human rights activists who had proposed a draft to avoid discrimination against ethnic minorities and marginalized groups, including homosexuals.
(Additional reporting by Marja Novak in Ljubljana, Daria Sito-Sucic in Sarajevo and Fatos Bytyci in Pristina)
Editing by Adam Tanner and Ingrid Melander