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Milosevic Exploits Serb Homophobia

Yugoslav President Milosevic is exploiting deep-seated homophobia in Serbian society to undermine his opponents.
By Vlado Mares

The opposition in Serbia has long grown accustomed, if not immune, to being branded by the state-controlled media as foreign spies, fifth-columnists and traitors, but the latest denunciation is proving rather harder to brush off.


The authorities are increasingly attempting to divide and demoralise their opponents by accusing them of being gay, even though legislation banning homosexuality was repealed six years ago.


The regime is effectively exploiting deep-seated homophobia in Serbia, where there's a saying that parents would rather their son was run over by a bus than declare himself gay. Few homosexuals are open about their sexuality as they risk public humiliation and physical intimidation.


With homophobia so endemic in Serbian society, the impact of anti-gay prejudice as a political weapon is significant.


As far back as 1991, the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic skilfully used unfounded rumours that former Slovenian President Janez Drnovsek was gay to undermine him during the break-up of Yugoslavia.


More recently, the opposition Alliance for Changes, the force behind the nation-wide anti-regime protests last year, has been the main target of the anti-gay attacks.


In a typical denunciation, the Yugoslav United Left (JUL), the governing coalition partner headed by Milosevic's wife, Mira Markovic, accused the opposition late last year "of having a weakness towards the same sex".


The tactic has led to divisions between the Alliance and the main homosexual association in Yugoslavia, Arkadija.


The president of Arkadija, Dejan Nebrigic, well-known for his anti-government views, was found dead in his apartment in Pancevo in December, allegedly murdered by a deranged lover.


The investigating judge, Nedeljko Martinovic, condemned Arkadija, accusing it of using financial aid from foreign powers to promote the growth of subversive sects in Yugoslavia. Reports in pro-government media linking the group with the Alliance for Changes street protests soon followed.


Fearful of the negative attitude towards homosexuals in Yugoslavia, the Alliance was swift to deny it had been supported by Arkadija which, in turn, accused the Alliance of being just as homophobic as the current government.


The affair has outraged some commentators in Belgrade. Sonja Biserko, president of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, described Martinovic's statement as very dangerous.


"This illustrates the attitude of this society towards individuality and difference," she said. "It is an indication of fascism in our society, especially within the state apparatus."


The upsurge in state-sanctioned homophobia is worsening conditions for gay people in Serbia, with many saying they are facing increasing discrimination and physical threats.


A demand for greater legal protection was a made a week ago by activists at Yugoslavia's first-ever conference on homosexual rights, held in the capital of the northern Serbian province of Vojvodina, Novi Sad.


Under the slogan, "Tolerance - Live and Let Live", over 80 men and women from gay and lesbian associations from the Balkans, the United Kingdom and Germany attended the gathering.


Atila Kovac, one of the organisers of the conference, said, " We want the government to introduce laws which will outlaw discrimination against all citizens, not just homosexuals."


But given the success of state-sanctioned homophobia as a political weapon, the appeal is likely to fall on deaf ears.


Vlado Mares is a regular contributor to IWPR from Belgrade.


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