Dutch MEP Marije Cornelissen (Greens/EFA) – a member of the Parliamentary Group for the rights of homosexual, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons—describes the current state of the fight against homophobia and for LGBT rights in the Balkans
During the past EP legislature you have been working on the issue of homophobia in the Balkans. How have things changed over the last five years
A few weeks ago at the European parliament we inaugurated a photo exhibition, mainly focused on gay prides, that we entitled “Two steps forward and one step back.” This, in general, is my vision of things. There has been progress in nearly every country. Take Montenegro: the first time that I visited this country, a Montenegrin minister told me, “Here, we don’t have any problems with discrimination, because here we don't have any homosexual. We re a conservative country. There are no people here of this nature".
In response, we began to work on visibility issues. Some people opened an LGBT organization, and the Montenegrin Parliament finally adopted a plan of action against homophobia. I think this is an optimal result. In four years we went from pure and simple denial to the launch of an action plan. Nevertheless, there are still stories like that of Zdravko Cimbaljević , who had to leave his country and now lives as a refugee in Canada, because he was menaced.
I was in Serbia for the 2010 Gay Pride parade , which went rather well. However, the fighting between the police and the hooligans was horrible. Since then there has been no Pride parade. On the other hand, there’s been Boban Stojanović , a local activist, who managed to appear in Serbia’s version of Big Brother. He did a great deal for the visibility of homosexuals in the country, and even attracted sympathy for them. I hope that the following May 31, they will manage to have a Gay Pride parade. I’ll be there for it.
What about Croatia, now a member of the EU?
In Split in 2011 , things went decisively badly. In 2012, it was somewhat better. Croatia was the first country in the region to consider civil unions, but at the exact same time, it hosted a referendum to amend the constitution to read that marriage is only between a man and a woman. Yet again, a few steps forward and a few steps back. Overall, however, things are going in the right direction.
Is society also changing, or is this merely an openness meant to ingratiate the politicians with the European Union?
Society’s attitudes depend to a great degree on the attitudes of those in authority. In 2012, almost simultaneously in Albania and in Macedonia, the local press initiated a homophobic campaign. [The then Vice-minister of defense, Ekrem Spahiu, in response to the proposition that a Gay Pride parade should someday take place, affirmed that participants in this “depraved march” should be “beaten with sticks.” ndr] The Prime Minister, Sali Berisha, intervened to condemn this language, taking a clear position against discrimination. The homophobic campaign came to an end. It should be noted that Berisha is not exactly noted for being a progressive. In Macedonia, by contrast, no one said anything, and this sort of horrible language continued for quite awhile. When top politicians take a position, it has important consequences for the public opinion.
Are the politicians consistent in their statements?
In Serbia, when the government speaks to the European Union, the language is the right sort. They claim to be in favor of minority rights. However, then we see the ex-Prime Minister, Ivica Dačić , make his daily homophobic declarations, quite obviously directed at the domestic public. So yes, certain politicians do not also say the same things.
In what way can the European Union succeed in favoring change?
In the European Union, we have highly developed anti-discrimination legislation that also protects LGBT persons. Whoever wants to join the EU has to adopt it. The interested parties know this quite well. The government of Montenegro knows, for example, that having a Pride parade at Podgorica will be viewed favorably by Brussels, because they want to remove this from the list of things to do.
But it’s not real change, if it is only done to please Brussels…
Obviously, I would prefer if these things came “from the heart,” but it is not necessary. The most important thing is to protect people from homophobic violence. Why they do it doesn’t interest me. There is nothing in European legislation that regards marriage. This is a matter completely in the hands of the Member States. For this reason, the EU was unable to do anything about the Croatian referendum. However, if they had put forth a referendum, for example, to eliminate non-discrimination protections for LGBT persons in the workplace, this would have been blocked.
You are part of an Intergroup, i.e. a group made up of European Deputies from various political leanings. How wide was the consensus on this subject in the outgoing European Parliament?
There was very wide consensus. There is a small group of very religious individuals, who are close to certain Catholic groups and almost all of whom are in the European People’s Party (EPP), who are against rights for LGBT persons. Apart from this group, the consensus is very wide.
Are you satisfied with what the Commission has done with this subject in the Balkans?
It can always do better, but it has already done quite a bit. We could communicate better with the LGBT groups. Also our demands could be strengthened, for example with Serbia. Prohibiting the Gay Pride Parade is no longer only a matter of LGBT rights. It has to do with freedom of expression. When the Serbian government justifies itself by saying that there are violent anti-gay groups, and therefore it cannot protect the right to demonstrate of a small peaceful group of citizens, it is saying in other words that it does not have a monopoly on the use of force, which is quite a serious issue for a State.
Are you optimistic about the future?
Certainly Serbia has to do more during this round of negotiations. It cannot just muddle by with cosmetic reforms. The same thing for Montenegro. The only country that really worries me is Bosnia Herzegovina, where nothing is moving in any field. There is an LGBT organization that is fairly active, and the police have worked well with them, but on the political level, there is no desire for reform.
This could be said about everything in Bosnia, not only the rights of LGBT persons. Maybe the LGBT question could be seen as a litmus test that measures the general progress of a country towards Europe?
Maybe that’s the case. When there’s a climate for reform, this affects the rights of LGBT persons as well. In Moldova they are carrying out various reforms and suddenly they are paying attention to non-discrimination. If there is a general climate of reform in a country, the reforms regarding LGBT persons are also easier.
Then the battle for LGBT persons is not only a battle for a minority….
No. It is a question of fundamental rights. If you are a democratic country, if you want to join the European Union, you must know how to protect human rights.
This publication has been produced with the assistance of the European Union. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso and its partners and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union. The project's page: BeEU - 8 Media outlets for 1 Parliament.
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