Interviews with 100 candidates running for a seat in the Kosovo Assembly in this week’s elections reveal a clear disparity between politicians’ support for same-sex marriage.
While LGBTI rights rarely occupy political space in Kosovo’s election campaigns, a series of interviews conducted by BIRN show that a large number of candidates running for seats in the Assembly at the October 6 parliamentary elections support marriage equality.
No party in the course of this election campaign has explicitly expressed support for the improvement of LGBTI rights in their programs or plans for governance. However, during interviews conducted by BIRN, almost half of all candidates aiming to win a seat in the Kosovo Assembly on October 6 expressed support for same-sex marriage, with 48 per cent stating that they are in favor.
Albert Kinolli, standing with the United Roma Party, expressed his support for same-sex marriage, but acknowledged that the country is in a tough situation when it comes to improving societal acceptance. “Look, if we are speaking honestly, we know our mentality,” he replied. “We live in Kosovo. However, now we have recognized it in the Constitution, it is their choice.”
“Look, we are from the Balkans, I was educated differently. I am 55 years old and I will not answer this question.” Dragisa Miric, Sloboda coalition.
43 per cent, on the other hand, stated that they were against same-sex marriage. While the majority of MPs against marriage equality did not attempt to justify their position, some of the reasons for opposition included religion, support for “traditional family values,” growing up in the Balkans and being too old to have to support same-sex marriage.
BIRN interviewed 100 politicians, asking them 44 questions on topics ranging from the environment, healthcare, religious rights, whether they would choose public or private healthcare if they fell sick, and their own campaign financing.
While there are more than 1,000 politicians running for a seat at the Assembly, a sample of 100 candidates have been interviewed, including 37 former MPs. 10 per cent (10) of the candidates interviewed have held ministerial positions in former governments, 50 per cent (five) of whom support same-sex marriage.
Marriage equality has never been explicitly recognized in Kosovo. While the Constitution states that marriage is a right that all people enjoy without distinction, Kosovo’s Law on Family specifies that marriage must occur between and man and a woman.
Despite the lack of clarity, BIRN’s interviews suggest that the prevailing belief of politicians in Kosovo is that the Constitution has the final say on this matter. Many of those in favor explicitly mentioned the Constitution to justify their backing for same-sex marriage, seemingly reluctant to express open support but keen to abide by constitutional law.
Beginning with the parties that had the most candidates declaring themselves as being pro same-sex marriage, here is Prishtina Insight’s rundown of the statistics.
Vetevendosje For: 10 - Against: 2 - Abstained: 1
While Vetevendosje has often spoke of equal rights in their political discourse, the party has seldom publicly supported LGBTI rights in the past. Prior to this election, in a televised interview on September 16, leader of the party Albin Kurti responded to a question on support for the LGBTI community, saying “they are a minority whose rights should be respected as part of elementary basic human rights.”
Kurti has also faced questions on his lack of attendance at Kosovo’s pride parades. He responded by stating that attending such events is not a sign of genuine support for marginalized groups.
“I am in favor, if they love each other.” Liburn Aliu, Vetevendosje.
“I don’t know why I didn’t go there or where I was at the time,” Kurti told RTV Dukagjini. “But, look, I am more for human rights and minorities than for the symbolism of attending the parade, which does not compensate for having the right policies. There are many people who participate in these events, but then look what they do afterwards.”
“Well, look, this is a European standard and I don’t think we need to discuss it, and we should not stop it.” Driton Tali, Vetevendosje.
In his interview with BIRN, MP candidate Hekuran Murati acknowledged that the question of same-sex marriage is the responsibility of the government to codify and protect. “Human rights should be guaranteed by the state,” he said.
Democratic League of Kosovo, LDK For: 10 - Against: 6 - Abstained: 2
There is a relatively even division between the LDK members interviewed in their support or opposition to marriage equality. A party known for peddling traditional family values, the age of the candidates interviewed revealed a split in opinion, with younger candidates expressing support for marriage equality and older candidates referencing traditional values or not providing reasons for opposing same-sex marriage.
“Pff, this has no importance for me. It is the individual choice of people.” Driton Selmanaj, LDK.
Those in LDK that expressed support tended to classify marriage as a personal or individual choice. The surprise expressed by many of the politicians about being interviewed on the subject when asked, as well as many in LDK expressing that marriage equality is something private, reveals that LGBTI rights is not a ‘thematic issue’ that competing politicians feel they are required to take a position on in Kosovo, placing the needs of the community outside the political sphere of responsibility.
“Me and my party prefer the traditional way of family, so for me there is no dilemma over this issue.” Lirie Kajtazi, LDK.
In a televised interview, the party’s candidate for prime minister, Vjosa Osmani, stated that there had been bigger issues to deal with in the last 20 years, but that she would like to see the discrepancies in the Constitution clarified by the Constitutional Court, and that she would abide by the court’s decision.
Coalition of the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, AAK, and the Social Democratic Party, PSD For: 6 - Against: 4 - Abstained: 3
While most candidates from the AAK-PSD coalition that were in favor of same-sex marriage cited the law, a minority spoke of their support for a broader social equality, including Fatos Axhemi and former mayor of Peja, Ali Berisha, who stated that “all should be equal and people should be respected from these categories.” Burim Ramadani, an AAK MP candidate, also said that he would work to support the rights of marginalized people, including LGBTI rights, without explicitly being asked to comment on this topic.
“Deep down inside I don’t want this, but I am in favor of respecting the law and the Constitution.” Muharrem Nitaj, AAK.
Those from the AAK-PSD coalition declaring themselves against same-sex marriage did not provide reasoning. Prime ministerial candidate for the coalition, Ramush Haradinaj, was recorded using homophobic language during a Kosovo Assembly meeting on the border demarcation agreement with Montenegro in September 2015.
Coalition of NISMA, the New Kosovo Alliance, AKR, and the Justice Party, PD For: 9 - Against: 5 - Abstained: 1
The three parts of this coalition seem divided on the issue. Four of the five candidates interviewed from the New Kosovo Alliance, AKR, led by outgoing Minister for Foreign Affairs Behgjet Pacolli, were in favor, while NISMA was split more evenly with five candidates in favor, three against and one taking no position. Both representatives of the Justice Party, PD, declared themselves against.
“No, I am not against it. It is a will and desire of individuals and I have no right to interfere in others' way of life.” Armend Bekteshi, NISMA.
The split in opinion on same-sex marriage reflects a broader conflict of ideologies within the coalition, with NISMA a self-identified social democratic party, AKR defining themselves within a neoliberal framework, and the Justice Party subscribing to more conservative right-wing values.
“I prefer marriages to happen between different genders.” Enver Hoti, NISMA.
During a debate with BIRN on Sunday, NISMA leader and the coalition’s candidate for prime minister Fatmir Limaj was asked whether he would participate in Kosovo’s next LGBTI pride parade. “I don’t know if I will be here, but for me, everyone should have the right to free will. What is most important is that people should have the right to freedom of expression, and a prime minister should not decide whether this should or should not happen.”
Liberal Party of the Egyptian Community and the New Democratic Initiative of Kosovo For: 4 - Against: 0 - Abstained: 0
“It’s not about being for or against, I would leave this to freedom of choice.” Artan Berisha, Liberal Party of the Egyptian Community.
All four members of the Egyptian community that were interviewed were in support of marriage equality. The candidates interviewed came from two parties, the Liberal Party of the Egyptian Community and the New Democratic Initiative of Kosovo. Albert Kinolli from the United Roma Party also expressed support.
Veton Berisha, a former MP from the Liberal Party of the Egyptian Community acknowledged the resistance from religious groups to supporting LGBTI rights, but also stated that: “My liberalism protects and allows it… Personally, I have no reason to be against it, I live by the concept of freedom, and while I am part of a religion that is against it, I have no comment on it, as God said that people should live free.”
The Democratic Party of Kosovo, PDK For: 3 - Against: 7 - Abstained: 2
Of the 12 candidates running with PDK in the upcoming elections, seven were against same-sex marriage and two refused to comment. Candidate Fadil Nura cited religious justifications for opposing, yet qualified his statement by saying that it requires “assessment.”
“I am against it in principle, but this depends, because it needs an assessment,” he replied. “We are 90 per cent muslims, and in religious terms, this is strongly opposed by all religions and not only Islam. But in principle, I am against it.”
“I think we should respect the rights and freedom of people.” Arbresha Syla, PDK.
Out of those interviewed, former Minister for Culture,Youth and Sports Kujtim Gashi and Donjet Sadiku, two politicians considered part of the ‘new generation’ of PDK, were against same-sex marriage or refused to comment.
On a rare occasion where PDK leader Kadri Veseli mentioned LGBTI rights in 2015 during a meeting with Randy Berry, Special Envoy for Human Rights from the US State Department, Veseli said that “We have the most liberal constitution in the region, as well as a strong cultural tradition of tolerance on different ways of life, and this allows us to be more effective against prejudice and stereotypes that members of the LGBTI community face.”
On the other hand, leaked wiretaps from August 2016 revealed the PDK leader openly using homophobic language to refer to his political opponents.
While candidates from parties representing Kosovo’s Egyptian and Roma communities all gave their support to same-sex marriage, the majority of those representing Kosovo’s other ethnic minorities opposed marriage equality.
Three out of four candidates interviewed from the Kosovo Serb coalition Sloboda stated that they were against same-sex marriage, with the exception of Rada Trajkovic, who said “Freedom belongs to the people. Let them choose themselves.”
Out of seven candidates interviewed from two parties representing the Ashkali community, every single one was against supporting same sex marriage, with two candidates citing religious reasons. Three out of four members of the Bosniak community standing for election were also against marriage equality.
Both candidates interviewed from the conservative religious party, Fjala, were openly homophobic in their responses. Avni Cakmaku stated that he would never support LGBTI people as a discriminated category because “they need medical help, rather than institutional support,” while Xhevdet Maloku stated that the party was “against any illness that endangers Kosovo.”
A long road ahead to marriage equality
The last 12 months have seen both highs and lows in the advancement of Kosovo’s LGBTI rights record, with many obstacles to equality for LGBTI individuals outside of political acceptance of same-sex marriage.
In April, amendments to Kosovo’s Criminal Code broadened protections for members of the LGBTI community, criminalizing hate speech and hate crimes committed targeting a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation.
However, one of the most significant setbacks was in November 2018, when five police officers were found to have subjected witnesses to homophobic verbal abuse during questioning and failing to adequately investigate the case in question.
In the face of numerous homophobic incidents, prevailing anti-LGBTI social attitudes and lack of vocal support for the community, LGBTI rights have rarely been framed as a human rights issue in Kosovo.
Experts have attributed this to a lack of vocalized hard-right political opposition to LGBTI rights across Kosovo’s political spectrum. According to Conor O’Dwyer, a professor of political science at the University of Florida, visible political hostility is “critical to recruiting and mobilizing constituents and to attracting allies outside the movement.”
In countries such and Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, resistance to homophobic political views was crucial in framing LGBTI rights as a viable human rights issue. “Backlash brings unprecedented media attention to an issue that previously languished in the obscurity of the taboo; it increases the issue’s visibility and centrality,” O’Dwyer said.
Kosovo will hold its third annual LGBTI pride march next Thursday, October 10, with events organized across Prishtina in the days leading up to the parade. For more information on these events, visit the Center for Liberty and Equality, CEL, Facebook page.
Illustration: Jete Dobranja for Prishtina Insight.