Western Balkans and their uneasy road to (gender) democracy


The rise of the anti-gender movement negatively affects our communities, however, as activists, we are trained to seek opportunities and possibilities even in the worst of times.Irena Cvetkovic, a human rights activist for the rights of marginalised communities in North Macedonia.

Interview with Irena Cvetkovic

In your professional career you have been part of various organisations and movements. What is the focus of your work at the moment? What is the perception of human rights activism in North Macedonia, where you are based?

I am the executive director of Coalition Margins. We are a coalition of a few civil society organisations working with marginalised communities, focusing on advocacy, knowledge production and providing legal support to marginalised women, LGBTIQ communities, people living with HIV, sex workers, and drug users. We offer free legal aid and our team has been successful with strategic litigation cases in national courts and in the European Court of Human Rights. For us, strategic litigation is a tool to influence legislation and institutional practises in North Macedonia. One of our most important victories is the case X vs. FYR of Macedonia [provisional name of North Macedonia used until 2018] in which in 2019 the European Court for Human Rights stated that the country should adopt procedure for legal gender recognition for transgender people. Coalition Margins has participated in the process of drafting such a national framework. We try to include the intersectional perspective into our work, tackling among others gender-based violence against men and boys that are part of the LGBTIQ community as well as gender-based violence against other gender identities.

When it comes to the perception of our work in North Macedonia, we have gone through some turbulent times. Under the previous government, civil society was labelled a “foreign agent” and a destabilising factor within the Macedonian society. It was a decade-long campaign and many truly believed that the main focus of civil society organisations is money laundering and implementing foreign agenda in the country. But there has been also some positive development, especially when the social climate was changing during the establishment of the new government by the Social Democrats. However, in the last 2-3 years due to the anti-gender and anti-democratic mobilisation our organisation and also I personally have been targeted as feminist and queer activists. Also other organisations have been attacked. It creates an atmosphere of fear among human rights defenders, and contributes to the society perceiving some parts of the civil society, mainly organisations working on gender equality and LGBTIQ rights, as something to be afraid of. Anti-gender actors also seek to create division within the feminist movement, particularly by supporting exclusionary policies against transgender women. We try to create strategic response to these new challenges.

Regarding strategic responses, what is your approach to fighting structural discrimination of marginalized communities?

The main problem of North Macedonia and many other countries in the Western Balkans, even those that have very good legislation, is the lack of its implementation. It is a shared challenge in our region. So parallel to working on improving legislation, we also work on creating inclusionary institutional practises. And let me assure you, it is not an easy part of the job. Sometimes it is easier to draft a new legislation rather than to implement it as it should be. What we see as another huge challenge, in particular regarding the cases of gender-based violence, is the lack of due diligence. In the majority of the femicide cases for example, victims have had a history of seeking help from state institutions. This goes to show that dealing with such cases with due diligence might have prevented the worst. Last but not least, a very important pillar of our work is creating accepting societies – societies that are not hateful, that do not support violence and exclusion. But in order to have more accepting societies it is not enough to have good legislation. It is also the implementation of this legislation that matters a lot.

You mentioned common challenges across the region. North Macedonia together with other countries of the Western Balkans is a EU candidate country. How does this affect you and your work?

For North Macedonia, but also for the region, the accession dialogue has not been a linear process. There have been ups and downs, depending on the political willingness in the European Union and the position of national governments. There have been missed opportunities on both sides. Recently we have seen for example that the EU has missed the opportunity to listen and react to warnings from civil society which has resulted in adopting restrictive legislation for NGOs and shrinking space for civic activism in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and particularly in Republika Srpska. There is not enough understanding that women human rights defenders, especially those from the Western Balkan countries, are agents of change and listening to them and responding adequately and on time might prevent larger damage. In North Macedonia we are not only focused on the final result – becoming a Member State – bur rather on the very process of accession dialogue as a tool of building democracy in the region. We have done so many changes to open the accession negotiations, but we are still waiting. This affects the attitudes of the society. As never before, EU scepticism is on the rise in North Macedonia. The accession dialogue is currently being used to settle nationalist disputes. And the society used to think of it as a value-based process in which we talk about future. Now this process is not about human rights, not about progress, not about emancipation but rather about the past and conflicts between different countries of the region.

Not only EU scepticism is currently gaining momentum. We already talked about anti-gender mobilization in North Macedonia that you both analysed as a researcher and experienced as an activist. How does the rise of anti-gender movements affect human rights activism and your work in particular?

The rise of anti-gender movements is a recent phenomenon in North Macedonia and in the region. In 2020 the term gender ideology was used for the first time as a point of mobilisation against women's and LGBTIQ rights. Our research has shown that gender ideology is an umbrella term that refers to any progressive initiative related to women and LGBTIQ people, particularly to marginalised and transgender women. Anti-gender movements target specific laws, such as the legal gender recognition framework for transgender people. Of course, it is not only that. Anti-gender actors promote their idea of how societies should be structured, how men and women should be defined and perceived, while keeping the privileges of the privileged groups in the Western Balkans. When we first started to follow the rise of the anti-gender initiatives, there were only four organisations that were part of this so-called movement. Now it is better organised. Last year the Macedonian Orthodox Church joined the anti-gender coalition and this is when it gained the biggest popularity. The role of the church as a prominent voice of anti-gender campaigns is very important here. Like never before, we have noted a trend of increasing violence against the LGBTIQ community. What is different now, is that most of the violence occurs in public spaces due to perceived sexual orientation or gender identity and perpetrators are unknown to the victims. Prior to this, we have observed more cases of violence in which perpetrators were close or known to the victims, like bullying at school. Now it is a public issue.

Obviously, the rise of the anti-gender movement negatively affects our communities, however, as activists, we are trained to seek opportunities and possibilities even in the worst of times. There is something good coming out of it because it strengthens and fosters the mobilisation among not only civil society organizations, but also the communities and progressive allies.

The situation of marginalised communities in the context of anti-gender mobilisations is undeniably complex and difficult. As a human rights activist, how do you envision the fight against these challenges in the future?

What is specific about anti-gender movements in the context of the Western Balkans is that compared to other countries, especially within the EU, we cannot talk about a backlash. What we face is an opposition towards policies that were never part of our system. It is more about preserving the system as it is – highly homophobic, violent, full of hatred towards any kind of different bodies, subjects and identities, rather than a pushback or regress. It makes our situation even more difficult, because it is hard to protect marginalised communities when you do not have proper legislation and when you have an organised movement that articulates only hatred towards those communities. Through our work we found out that the anti-gender mobilization is very quick and successful, because there is a potent social base and broad public support for it. So we soon realised that progressive attitudes in North Macedonia should be created rather than mobilised, and this is a big lesson we learned. We do a lot of advocacy work, but we are also more visible – talking on the media, producing our own podcast, increasing our social media presence. We have started more and more to work with communities und include them in our actions. We reached out to artists, DJs, journalists, academia, etc. We look for more creative approaches, new ways of organising and mobilising. Together we are establishing a strong progressive voice.

*Irena Cvetkovic: a human rights activist for the rights of the marginalised communities, with focus on LGBTIQ rights, drug users’ rights and sex workers’ rights. As a researcher, she has worked on many research projects in the area of sociology, gender studies and media. Currently she is the executive director of the Coalition ‘Sexual and Health Rights of Marginalised Communities’.

The views and conclusions expressed in the inteview do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.