LGBT violence in the Balkans

Throughout the Balkans, LGBT advocates and their supporters face violence, cancelled Pride parades, and unresponsive or disrespectful police. What hope is there for sexual minorities in the region?

LGBTQ groups are crossing ethno-national boundaries

On October 21, 2012, a gay grassroots activist was brutally attacked in Tetovo, Macedonia as he was walking home around 9pm. Two unknown assailants, young men, taunted him, calling him “fag” and “homo” and yelling, “You are all going to die!" 

After being beaten, Alen Shakiri, the president of Macedonia’s first expressly LGBT civil society organization, called several fellow activists who filed a joint complaint to the police.

In Serbia, government officials canceled last year’s Pride Parade citing security concerns for the second year running. In September, three Montenegrins who worked on a television spot promoting tolerance of the LGBT community were attacked and beaten by a group of football fans. And in December in Pristina, Kosovo a group of 20 thugs attacked the launch party of Kosovo 2.0 Magazine’s launch of its fourth issue, themed “Sex: LGBT Life in Kosovo and the Balkans,” damaging valuable equipment and causing incalculable fear.

Each country differs in its level of legal recognition and civil society activism, but activists in each country are not backing down in the face of violence or threats.

“This is Macedonia: one mistake can cost us life.”

After publicizing the attack on Shakiri in October, messages of support came from members of the European Parliament and from all over the world via Facebook and email. But support was missing from one crucial actor: the police. Members of LGBT United said that law enforcement agencies were not helpful when taking their statements and did not show interest in pursuing justice for Shakiri.

Members of LGBT United, which says it is the first Macedonian NGO to call itself an LGBT organization rather than a human rights organization, were reluctant to speak with Kosovo 2.0 because, the organization’s founder says, “This is Macedonia. One mistake can cost us life." 

The founder, who preferred not to use a name out of concern for other members of the organization who have been receiving threats of blackmail, describes the situation in Macedonia vis a vis minority groups as the “same as it is in Russia.”

Politicians and religious groups are helping ferment hatred, the founder says.

“The Orthodox and Muslim (religious) communities say LGBT (people) are sick, that they should be killed in hospitals.” He says violence is not restricted to outsiders; sometimes it can be self-inflicted because of pressure from classmates or family.

“For example, one boy contacted us a few days ago and he said he wants to kill himself. … He can’t take it anymore at school, with all others calling him gay. … There are many other cases like this.”

The already volatile political situation in Macedonia is even worse for its LGBT population: government officials recently denounced same-sex marriage and adoption by gay couples.  LGBT United is quick to point out that no organization or group has ever campaigned for same-sex marriage, but simply recognition that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is illegal.

Almost all Balkan countries include sexual orientation in their anti-discrimination laws, even if it is not always respected by legal authorities. But in Macedonia, such a law is not even on the books.

This could be explained by the fact that the it is the only former Yugoslav republic to secede from that union of southern slavs peacefully, and has therefore received les international scrutiny.  Regardless, LGBT United says since the recent media blitz, the situation for LGBT people has worsened.

“After homophobic declarations by ministers and the media, (our situation) has become worse. LGBT people are scared, especially the gays who are feminized.”

Moreover, the recent statements by the government ministers “infect all other institutions to all become homophobic, too, and there is hate speech from the media.”

LGBT United is planning Macedonia’s first Pride Week for June 2013, with the support and cooperation of the pride organizers in Sofia, Bulgaria and Zagreb, Croatia. It will be a big moment for the LGBT community, LGBT United’s founder says.

“We have the right to protest under the law. So we will have the Pride. It’s a protest here; it is not a Pride for fun.”

“Skinny jeans are enough of a reason to get beaten here…”

Coming out in Montenegro, the Balkans’ smallest country by population, with only 625,000 citizens, means LGBT people are effectively barred from getting a job, says Stevan Milivojevic, an activist with the country’s only LGBT NGO, Forum Progres. 

That’s how he explains that Forum Progres’ founder, Zdravko Cimbaljevic, remains the only publicly gay person in the country.

Just being affiliated with the LGBT community was enough to get beaten in September. The director and actor in a spot aimed at promoting tolerance, as well as a journalist with state TV, were attacked and beaten by members of a football fan club after the spot aired.

The video clip showed two male fans watching a game who share their enthusiasm for their team’s goal by kissing.

“It is supposed to be a funny way of saying there are gay people everywhere, even among sports fans,” Milivojevic says.

“But it shows that even if you are connected in any way possible with the gay community, even if you are trying to advocate, you get beaten,” he continues.

“That is a great way of showing that even if you support gay rights, and believe that LGBT rights are human rights, you can get beaten. If that can happen to straight people, imagine what can happen to us.”

Milivojevic says that when he first moved to Montenegro’s capital, Podgorica, he was attacked regularly just for looking different, and he was too scared to go to the police because he did not know how they would react. Plus, he had not come out to his family.

“I was afraid to go to the police to say I was beaten, only because I look different, I wear skinny jeans … skinny jeans are enough of a reason to get beaten here, or if you dye your hair. Once, a guy broke a glass bottle on my head. … If it weren’t for my friends, I don’t know what would have happened.

He says he was just like many other LGBT youths who did not know their rights.

“I didn’t know that I could file a complaint. I am sure that there are a lot of cases like that and people are afraid because they live in constant fear of being exposed to the public as gay, which would cause them much more harm.”

Now, the two year old LGBT Forum Progres has been amassing information on attacks and threats, and has registered 45 incidents since the beginning of 2012, including violence, but primarily threats and discrimination. The NGO works with police institutions to file charges anonymously and protect the privacy of people who report attacks.

But still, he says, people are reluctant to report an incident as hate-based because they are afraid of negative responses from institutions or family and friends.

Montenegrin Prime Minister Igor Luksic has condemned the attacks on the journalists. And Milivojevic says the police have instituted a LGBT community liaison through whom support organizations can report threats or attacks and check on the status of proceedings, and cooperation is working. Police also provided protection for a rally in support of International Day Against Homophobia in May.

Activists are depending on similar support for the anticipated June 2013 Pride, which will be Montenegro’s first. Plans were aborted last year because the government indicated it would not participate in any way in the event.

KOSOVO: The police officers erroneously said, “Practicing homosexual acts is illegal.”

As the world’s second-youngest country, Kosovo has the distinction of having some of the most modern laws, due to international oversight. Yet violence and prejudice are still rampant in society.

“Even though the legal framework in Kosovo is very progressive, the country faces difficulties with the implementation of almost every law,” says activist Myrvete Bajrami, founder of the Center for Social Emancipation (QESH), which worked to ensure that gender identity was part of the Constitution’s anti-discrimination law.

Despite the laws, she says, the LGBT community usually faces discrimination when it comes to accessing good and services.

In Kosovo in 2005, two non-straight men were attacked and injured by assailants wielding knives. When they reported the incident to the police and said they had been attacked because of their sexual orientation, the police ridiculed the victims, accusing them of wrong-doing and did not pursue the attackers. In fact, the two men were treated as suspects rather than victims. According to QESH reports, the police officers erroneously said, “Practicing homosexual acts is illegal.”

This incident undermined rule of law in the world’s second youngest country by causing broad distrust. As a result, police data on hate-related incidents is not necessarily equivalent to the number of incidents, which his true for many Balkan countries.

However, Bajrami says, the good news is that the offending police officers were fired and sanctioned, as was a police representative who said, “Wherever you find two homosexuals in public you are supposed to arrest them.” Additionally, every police officer was required to undergo training on interacting with LGBT people, and there is a police liaison as there is in Montenegro.

But most incidents are still not reported, despite improvements in the police force. 

“Most of the cases go unreported out of fear of being identified as members of the LGBT community,” Bajrami says. “Or they are reported as a robbery or something else. We have very few cases reported as discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and we have no case that was sent to court.”

And, although the police institutions are vastly improved, they do not take every threat seriously.

In December 2011, two girls were asked to leave the Hard Rock Cafe because they were showing affection in public. They called the police to report the case, and were told the officers had more important issues to attend to. When they went to the police station to submit a complaint, they insisted to the police officer manning the phone lines that he take their statement and investigate the incident as a hate crime based on sexual orientation. The police took the statement and promised to look into it, but they have never followed up.

And in December 2012, a hooligan sports club “Plisat” attacked Kosovo 2.0’s magazine launch even though party organizers had warned the police of threats. The two policemen who were assigned to the event were unable to protect the attendees from the ensuing chaos and violence.

SERBIA: “Almost every day I was accosted in the streets and threatened.”

Incidents of violence against LGBT persons regularly occur in Serbia. A 2010 survey by the Gay Straight Alliance found 14 percent of those queried said violence and beatings are legitimate ways to respond to homosexuality. 

In August 2010, an 18-year-old member of an anti-gay Facebook group killed a gay German tourist who was walking arm-in-arm with another man along the Sava River.

Almost no one was surprised when the Serbian government canceled the 2012 Pride Parade for the second time in a row. It did not sit well with European Union officials who are working to assess Serbia’s readiness to join Europe.

Nor did it sit well with the country’s LGBT population, which took the cancellation as a sign of the government’s close ties with Obraz and 1389 Nasi, considered nationalistic and violent groups who are often engaged in violence against members of the LGBT community.

The 2010 Pride, which drew 1,000 marchers, was a triumphant day, but it was marred by violence and destruction. One hundred and forty-seven policemen and almost 20 civilians were reported wounded in the violence that ensued when 6,000 anti-gay demonstrators stormed the parade area, destroying and looting businesses.

But lasting damage also occurred to those who participated in the Pride. It was community activist Majda Puaca’s role as one of the organizers of the 2010 Belgrade Pride that forced her to seek political asylum in the United States. On a daily basis before and after the event, she was verbally assaulted, taunted and threatened on the streets and via mobile phone and social networks.

“Since 2009 when I started organizing Gay Pride, I started getting death threats, threats of rape, beatings and killings over Facebook and my phone, and almost every day I was accosted in the streets and threatened,” Puaca says.

It has been almost two years since she has been able to go home: If she travels to Serbia, she forfeits her right to asylum in the United States. Disconnected from her family and friends, she walks dogs for a living, which she says has been crucial therapy for her.

She is looking forward to working for causes she cares about, helping homeless LGBT youths and assisting immigrants in similar situations to hers, but not quite yet.

“I’m still not there yet mentally, I want to recover from my PTSD. I was so traumatized,” she says.  In Belgrade, the Pride is scheduled for September 28 this year, but organizer and regional director of the Organization Civil Rights Defenders Goran Miletic says he secured the institutional support.

“However, when it comes to the Pride Parade, it is always up to one or two people in the country and I think it will be the same this year,” he added as a caveat.

ALBANIA: “Whenever the visibility of the LGBT cause is increased, violence is something that follows.”

In Albania, there have been seven hate-motivated instances of violence in the past year, says Kristi Pinderi, an activist and founder of a human rights news portal, Historia Ime.

In 2007, a transgender woman was killed in the capital city, Tirana, by a man from Kosovo, and the perpetrator has not been convicted.  Pinderi says that he and fellow activists are constantly threatened and taunted on the streets, but that it is a byproduct of activism that will not make them relent, it will only make them work harder to forge alliances with law enforcement and judicial institutions.

“Whenever the visibility of the LGBT cause is increased, violence is something that follows,” he says. “But we will not negotiate our cause — the visibility of LGBT issues is something that (we) will not step back from. What we need now is to have better collaboration with the institutions and also with the police.”

Pinderi says the biggest challenge his organization is confronting is educating young people, and family members, so that families do not shun LGBT people.

“Domestic violence for LGBT is our biggest challenge: How can we enter inside families and stop this nonreported domestic violence?”

BOSNIA: "If you were my child, I would have killed you." 

There have been no public campaigns to promote awareness and tolerance of Bosnia’s LGBT community since the Queer Festival degenerated into violence in 2008. Those who congregated at the opening of the festival were attacked by a group of angry football fans and Islamic fundamentalists. Several people were pursued for kilometers by foot and in cars, while others wound up in a hospital.

In April 2012 Lamija Topcagic, a Lesbian activist with the organization Okvir, based in Sarajevo, tried to donate blood at a university-sponsored blood drive. As she was filling out necessary paperwork, she protested that the form barred LGBT people from donating blood.

When she questioned the blood drive staff, she was harassed and called a druggie. “They psychically attacked me in front of my friends,” she told Kosovo 2.0.

When Lamija responded that she is not a druggie, simply a lesbian whose rights had been infringed, the nurse technician responded: “If you were my child, I would have killed you.”  The dean of the faculty of philosophy, where the incident took place, refused to meet with her or her supporters.

Lamija and Okvir did not back down. Lamija gathered 50 people to protest. Although four of her professors supported her, none of them attended the rally, but one sent a letter of support. They filed a complaint with Bosnia’s ombudsman. The blood donation form has been updated to remove the offensive language, and the ombudsman has ruled that such a questionnaire is not legal.

Pro-LGBT activists in Bosnia are working to organize, but a pride parade or another queer festival still loom on the horizon, although it is a goal for the coming years, as the memory of the 2008 festival still looms large. Members of the LGBT community are now focused on graffiti that promotes tolerance, and cultivating safe spaces for members to meet.

Most cafes are not friendly to gay and lesbian pairs, and “coming out publicly is like an invitation to receive threats of violence,” says Azra, a lesbian who did not want to use her last name.

“Every day I hear remarks and violent comments on the streets about gays and lesbians,” she says.

CROATIA: Finally, Progress

Unlike the rest of the Balkans, in Croatia, which will officially join the European Union in a matter of months, there is political support for the LGBT movement at the highest levels of government.

Although intolerance is present in the country, law enforcement and government agencies do not tolerate violence.

Last year, when violent anti-gay protesters threatened to attack participants in coastal Split’s first Pride Parade via a now-defunct Facebook group called “Blood Will Flow if Croatia Gay parade Happens,” the government deployed 900 police officers to protect marchers in Croatia’s second biggest city.  After a dozen marchers were hurt, more than 150 individuals were arrested and prosecuted.

And they ensured that violence did not occur at this year’s Split parade. The Zagreb Pride, first held in 2002, is known for being the first successful pride parade in the Balkans, and top government officials have participated each year.

That is a small group, though, compared with police estimates that there were 8,000 counter-protesters who threw stones, tomatoes, paint, shoes and even a gas mask at the 150 marchers the day after Croatia’s EU membership was given the green light.  Croatia’s President Ivo Josipovic condemned the violence in a strong and unequivocal manner.

This analysis was first published in Kosovo 2.0 magazine

About the author

Valerie Hopkins is an American journalist based in New York City.  She spent three years in the Balkans reporting primarily on politics, transitional justice, organized crime and corruption.