Macedonia's new anti-discrimination law sparked controversy on Friday, as gay activists and the European Union criticised the bill for not including sexual orientation discrimination.
The new law, adopted by a slim majority of 62 deputies in the 120-seat parliament late Thursday, is not in line with European standards, a representative of the EU delegation in Skopje told AFP.
The bill which lists some 20 bases for discrimination but leaves sexual orientation out of that list makes Macedonia "the only country in the region that has a non-European anti-discrimination law," the official said.
Ahead of the vote deputies of the biggest opposition group, the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), walked out in protest because the amendments including sexual orientation were not added.
Both the EU and the opposition urged the Macedonian government in vain to delay the vote so the draft could be changed.
There are very few openly gay people in Macedonia as the society treats them with deep suspicion. Despite several attempt to organise a gay pride parade in the capital Skopje no more than a handful of people showed up last year.
Even gay organisations prefer to present themselves as associations for marginalised people.
Slavco Dimitrov, leader of a coalition for protection of marginalised groups' rights, said the law was sending "a wrong message to the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) population as the government has been ignoring them."
"The government refuses to provide equal status to all citizens and instead of taking affirmative measures for the protection of human rights it has created a flagrant homophobic atmosphere in the process of adopting this law," Dimitrov told AFP.
According to the government the rights of gays and others discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation will still be protected by the law even if they are not explicitly mentioned.
"The law will protect all the citizens of this country against discrimination," ruling coalition deputy Silvana Boneva said.
Although "sexual orientation was not listed as a basis of discrimination it does not exclude such discrimination," she insisted.
Macedonia has been a candidate for EU membership since 2005, but has yet to open accession talks.