Speaking Openly in Serbia

The incidence of HIV/AIDS in Serbia is comparatively low: 0.1 percent of the population compared to 0.6 percent in the United States, 1 percent in Russia, and 25 percent in Swaziland. Nevertheless, those who live with the disease report that they are stigmatized, ostracized, and have difficulties gaining access to treatment. Some are fired from their jobs; others are kicked out of their families.

Dragoslav Popovic is a lawyer who has worked for quite a few years on HIV/AIDS issues. He reports that the situation has marginally improved for people with the disease.

“The public perception was worse than it is nowadays,” he told me in an interview in Belgrade last October. “Stigmatization and discrimination were common. From the point of view of treatment, it was even worse, because they had to pay for their treatments and nowadays it’s free. Not many people were in a position to afford that, so it was added stress for them. Even nowadays, when I’m doing consulting with them, they don’t even know their rights as a patient, such as the right to confidentiality. If you don’t confront the doctors and the medical staff, they’ll just continue to do what they’re doing. You have to stand up and tell them, ‘You’re not allowed to do that. That’s confidential information.’ So it’s better nowadays in terms of people speaking more openly, which is as important as making them stronger.”

Speaking openly has been a consistent theme in Dragoslav Popovic’s life, from his self-assertiveness in grade school to his political activism during his university days in the movement to oust Slobodan Milosevic. Speaking openly has also meant taking somewhat unorthodox positions, at least compared to other democracy activists. He has taken a dim view of the Hague Tribunal, and he views Kosovo as Serbian territory. But he has also taken strong stands against Serbian chauvinism and homophobia.

During our conversation, we talked about the assassination of Zoran Djindjic, the role of the Church in Serbia, and his attempts to change the minds of two of his friends, one a Serbian nationalist and the other a diehard follower of Milosevic’s party.

 

The Interview

 

Do you remember where you were when you heard the news of the Berlin Wall falling?

 

I was in my flat in my hometown with my family. I was really curious what it actually meant politically. Even though I was quite young, I was already interested in such things. Then my mother took the liberty to explain to me what it meant.

 

How did you respond to your mother’s explanation?

 

Actually, I didn’t understand everything that she wanted to say, because she was explaining it to me as if I was more of an adult than I was at the time. I simply believed that it was a good thing that happened. Those kinds of divisions are never good. That was my basic opinion.

 

When did you begin to think of yourself as “political” in some sense? Was there a particular moment in your life?

 

I’ve always been that type of person. Even in primary school I was always fighting for my rights.

 

Can you give me an example?

 

There was a teacher who accused me and my twin brother of doing something that we didn’t do. It was just convenient for her to pick us. We were very different from the group: twins with a specific color of hair…

 

Identical twins?

 

Fraternal twins, but still we’re very similar to each other. We weren’t exactly calm — we did stupid things every once in a while. But this time it wasn’t us. The teacher said in another class that we stole something.

When I heard this on the break, I asked the guy who told me, “Will you be a witness to what she said?”

He said, “Yes.”

So, in class, I stood up and said to the teacher, “Please, why did you say this, this, this, and that?”

She said, “I never said that.”

I said, “Actually I have a witness. You didn’t just say it in front of one student, you said it in front of something like 36 students. So it’s stupid to claim otherwise.”

She said, “Bring in your witness.”

I asked the guy to come in. She asked him, “When did I say this, this, and that?”

He said, “An hour ago.”

He got slapped, so that was really not a pleasant experience. But still I was always standing up for things like that.

 

How old were you when you did that?

 

I was 14, or maybe 15.

 

Did you come to Belgrade for university?

 

Yes.

 

You were involved in political activism?

 

Yes, of course, as much as I could! It was during Milošević’s time, and we really wanted to stop that guy from torturing us. We were out on the streets. And there was a political opposition leading the people as well.

One time we were about to cross the Brankov Bridge to protest at a government institution. But there was a police cordon, and it was a massive crackdown on the people. I ran home. I didn’t want to be beaten up by the police. It was that kind of experience. Also at the university we had some strikes over financial stuff when they decided to charge for a lot of the scholarships. So we protested against those decisions and demanded specifications of the economic costs of everything. Once we even kept the minister of education inside the building as a hostage.

 

Was he an unwilling hostage?

 

Of course, yes. He didn’t want to raise too much of a fuss. Still we had to release him afterwards. That was one of my strongest memories from that time. That was in 1998.

 

There was so much hope around the student strikes at that time.

 

It was exactly as you say. It began as student strikes, but behind that it was politically motivated. We didn’t want to accept those huge changes in the autonomy of the university, and we were very closely supported by the opposition politicians, and vice versa.

I remember one of my really dear professors, who has since passed away. She was leading the student protest and it was really a huge thing to stand behind her. We were fighting against a government that just didn’t respect the will of the people. On the one side we were calling for the rule of law. On the other side, they were treating us like terrorists. And we were like, “Come on, you cannot say that NGOs are terrorist organizations!”

 

When you were involved in those protests, were you drawing on the experiences of other student protests in other countries?

 

Not so much in other countries. We were trying to link up with other cities in Serbia. There was some coordination between our strike group in Belgrade and the strike groups in Kragujevac and Nis. We were coordinating, giving them advice. And I also helped found a student organization called Tsentr.

 

What were the best and worst moments from those student activism times?

 

The best moment happened in 2000 with the resignation of Slobodan Milošević, finally after 10 tortuous years. That was the bravest I’ve felt. I remember talking to a foreign ambassador and I said something like, “This is the breath of Serbian freedom!” I was so ecstatic. It was a really unsafe situation because Milosevic was trying to decide whether to send in the military or not. We had to stand up and fight for the election results because in the beginning Milosevic refused to admit that he’d lost. We didn’t want to go underground. We knew the results from the beginning. So when he finally acknowledged the election results, it was one of those “phew” moments, and we thought, “Now we can breathe.”

 

And the low point?

 

The low point was that period of inflation when people didn’t have enough money to survive. I remember that my mother received a salary that had a specific value when you got up in the morning but by nighttime was completely devalued.

 

So you were a student during the bombing as well?

 

Yes.

 

That must have been very challenging.

 

For me, and I was studying law at the time, the explanation for the bombing that was presented to the outside world was unreasonable. I was hoping that the Kosovo issue would not get internationalized, that it would be resolved between Belgrade and Pristina. But that didn’t happen. I didn’t feel like abandoning Belgrade. I figured that NATO would identify targets elsewhere in Serbia and destroy them, but that it would be safe in downtown Belgrade. But my parents wanted to leave, because they assumed reasonably that Belgrade would be the main target. Eventually I did so too, because they asked me to. I didn’t want to. But to be honest, I wasn’t thinking that this was the right decision.

At the time I was reading a lot of documents about the Rambouillet Agreement, which Milosevic rejected and which NATO used to justify the bombing. I couldn’t get much of an independent opinion of what was happening, I had a professor who insisted that the decision to bomb Serbia was completely illegal. It was a horrible thing even apart from the bombs, the casualties, and the material damage. And being under bombardment for 78 days is not pleasant. That was my first experience of war, because I never experienced the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina or elsewhere. I found it really interesting how people were connecting with one another. The regime called NATO the “outside aggressor” and said that we had to unite. And we did unite. That was a ray of light during an otherwise very bad time.

 

And how did it affect the students?

 

There wasn’t really much student activity at that time. The professors said, “Safety is more important, so go home and we will see what will come of this.” So we weren’t so involved or in touch actively as it was before the bombing.

 

Did you notice people changing their political positions as a result of the bombing?

 

Some people would say, a year before, that Milosevic was a “bad politician.” And during the bombing, they’d say, “he is defending the national interest.” So, yes, in a way the bombing helped him become a more powerful politician, even though he wasn’t so popular among his own people.

 

And what about the impact of the sanctions?

 

I felt it directly because my mother decided at that time to go to Greece to work there to get some money, because working in Serbia wasn’t profitable. And it was really hard for me and my two brothers who stayed behind. I had bad grades at school, and financially it was not nice at all. We were close to the Bulgarian border, so there was illegally traded stuff between Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia at that time. So even though you couldn’t get anything in the market regularly, you could get this illegal stuff. But still there were people that simply could not survive.

 

What work did your mother do in Greece?

 

She was painting souvenirs because she’s a really good painter. That’s how she managed to earn some money to send back home.

 

I was going to ask you when you decided you wanted to be a lawyer, but that first story you told me about challenging the teacher sounded like it was your first law case.

 

Yes, I guess that it was. I was defending not only my interest, but my brother’s interest as well. I was representing him too.

 

Was there a point later on when you made a formal decision?

 

I had to make a choice between two things. I was interested in philology, because I’ve always loved languages. Then I thought that as I get older, I could improve my English or other foreign languages to a certain degree and be satisfied. But I also liked law as well, and that required study. I could raise the level of my English without a degree, but in law it’s quite the opposite. You have to have the degree to deal with law. Also my father was working in the field of law, in administration, so that also might have influenced my decision to choose law. Of course I also loved law and was always the type of person who always stands up and says, “I’m sorry, but this is not how it’s supposed to be done!”

 

In Bulgaria, for instance, there was a clear difference between how one practiced law before 1989 and after 1989. What about here? Was there a big change in the way law was practiced before the fall of Milošević and after the fall of Milošević?

 

Yes, actually there have been a lot of changes, even though I’m not satisfied with the amount of change. We’re still saying the same thing we did when we were the opposition political party: “We have a great laws on paper, but the implementation is problematic.” Another problem are the laws that are passed basically bring corruption inside the system. Nowadays, politicians who are accused of this or that will say, “Yes, but we were doing everything legally.” And then you ask them who voted on all those laws. And they’ll say, “It wasn’t me. It was that other party.”

I was living for three-and-half years with a flat mate. She was a socialist by orientation. I once believed that most of the less intelligent people in Serbia belonged to Milošević’s party. I don’t want to insult anybody, but that was my personal opinion. But then my political point of view came up against hers. She was really well-educated and also a pretty intelligent person. I tried to understand where she was coming from, but I was wondering, “Can’t she simply see what’s going on in this country?” I mean, a situation is objectively legal or illegal, fair or unfair. So, I was trying to understand her position. And I saw that her financial position was much better under the previous system. Her family members were involved in local administration with the Socialist Party, so she was brought up in that tradition. And I found out that her personal motive was really financial. During that socialist period, even though she wasn’t at all richer than she is now, she was somehow breathing easier.

 

And what was her attitude toward Milošević himself?

 

That was hard to get out of her without having a huge discussion. It was basically a fight. I couldn’t stand her arguments. I used to joke with her that she was a political dilettante.

I said, “Remember that you couldn’t breathe when you met the policeman on the street? He could basically do whatever he wants to you!” That was the first thing I felt with the change of the regime: relief and happiness. I tried to remind her of this feeling, and also inflation. And I said, “How do you explain these things?”

She said, “I can’t. But still, it was better.”

So I said, “You have no valid documentation for why it was better. So, it wasn’t better!”

 

It was a sentiment, not an argument.

 

Exactly. That’s why I said, “You’re a political dilettante!” Even nowadays we’re making these jokes, even though we’re no longer together in the same flat. I told her recently, “You shouldn’t be worried. The Socialists are now ruling, and the premier comes from your own party, so you should be happy!” But she’s been complaining about inflation and the high prices. So I said, “You should be quiet. You voted, I didn’t.” Unfortunately, I skipped the last elections because I was abroad, so I couldn’t vote.

Seriously, we’re really good friends. I consider it a major achievement that we’re friends despite our political differences. I love her even though she’s politically incorrect.

 

The big legal drama after Milošević resigned was whether he was going to go to The Hague or not go to The Hague.

 

I’m glad you mentioned that, because I have a slightly weird opinion on that.

 

I especially want to hear your weird opinion!

 

I basically felt that we should have a national trial on everything that he did. And then when we are done, and when he finishes the prison sentence, he can go wherever he wants. So, that was my personal opinion. Also, I didn’t have a very high opinion of the Hague Tribunal. As a lawyer, I’d say that it doesn’t function correctly. No court should be allowed to change its own rules.

 

I’m not sure I understand what you mean about changing the rules. 

 

The Hague can change the rules about its own legal process. That’s not the way it should be done. An independent body should write the rules about the process, not the court itself. Also, I felt that there should be a public debate about the law on extradition. At the time we didn’t have any such law. There was only a rule that said that no foreign country should judge our citizens. Then we implemented the Hague Tribunal ruling directly on our system and decided to give Milošević away. I personally think that it was done in a rush, more to win some international points than to ensure that everything was done correctly from a legal point of view.

And I wasn’t happy when he was there because the cells in the Scheveningen prison are more like a hotel room. And Milošević made so many people suffer here! I’m not a vengeful person. But if you do something wrong, you should have to do your sentence.

 

You said your opinion was a little weird. Is that because a lot of your friends had a different opinion?

 

Yes, they thought that he was supposed to go immediately to The Hague. I’d divide my friends into two groups. There were people, mostly law students, who thought more or less like I do. And then there were those who said, “He needs to go to The Hague. He’s done so many bad things, and he needs to suffer.” And that’s it: no discussion on how this was supposed to be done.

Legally we’re an independent country. So we can say, “Under those terms, we’re not entering into that relationship.” The new government basically rushed the decision.

I don’t know if you remember, but when the federation parliament was voting for the Hague Tribunal law, one of the former ministers committed suicide. So basically, we knew that the moment the law is enforced, those politicians would be the first to be sent away.

 

Well, the government faced a deadline, and there was a certain amount of money riding on the decision.

 

Yes, okay, I can understand the reasons. And I wasn’t involved in the decision. But still, I think that it could have been done better than it was.

 

Do you think that the decision has had a long-term impact on the legal system here?

 

Of course.

 

Can you give me an example?

 

Since then, we’ve been cooperating more or less regularly with the Hague Tribunal. Ratko Mladic or Radovan Karadzic: Were they national heroes or war criminals? I personally don’t know. I wasn’t there. But even if this quasi-court at The Hague is saying that you did something wrong and you say that you didn’t, then go over there and say, “I didn’t!” Don’t make the whole country stumble because of the two of you. And even worse, two young men in the military gave up their lives hiding the fugitives. And there were government institutions involved in hiding them.

 

When you graduated, what was the first thing you did with your law experience?

 

I started to cooperate with an NGO that worked with people who live with HIV. I’m still more or less active with the organization on some of these projects. My twin brother lives abroad. So, at that time, I was also thinking about leaving Serbia.

 

A lot of people were going abroad at that time.

 

That’s one of the measurements of the success of a new government, whether it’s center, right or left: encouraging people to come back from abroad and bringing their intellectual potential back with them. Still it’s the same pattern. People are graduating and walking away from Serbia. Nowadays you can earn maybe 400 Euro a month here. Your flat in Belgrade will cost you half of that. So, what kind of decent life is left with 200 Euro a month? That’s why I was thinking, and still am thinking, of going abroad, maybe to Austria.

Here I want to be involved in activism, and I don’t even charge for a lot of the things that I’m doing. Still, nobody lives on air alone.

 

Do you think you’ll work as a lawyer in Austria?

 

It’s pretty hard to be in law in another country. I’d rather work in the NGO sector, on human rights.

 

When you got involved in HIV issues, what was the situation for folks with HIV here in Belgrade, at the level of public perception but also at the level of care?

 

The public perception was worse than it is nowadays. Stigmatization and discrimination were common. From the point of view of treatment, it was even worse, because they had to pay for their treatments and nowadays it’s free. Not many people were in a position to afford that, so it was added stress for them. Even nowadays, when I’m doing consulting with them, they don’t even know their rights as a patient, such as the right to confidentiality. If you don’t confront the doctors and the medical staff, they’ll just continue to do what they’re doing. You have to stand up and tell them, “You’re not allowed to do that. That’s confidential information.” So it’s better nowadays in terms of people speaking more openly, which is as important as making them stronger.

 

How would you compare the situation here in Belgrade to other places, like Croatia?

 

To be honest, I don’t have much of a view on what’s happening in Croatia. But I was doing some comparative analysis of legal systems and went on a study visit to Poland. They had so many more drugs available for treatments than Serbia. In Serbia they simply don’t exist. I was doing a lot of work with serodiscordant couples, where one person is HIV positive and the other is HIV negative. These days here, they will never get information about first exposure and prophylaxis. I can understand it’s expensive for the state, and that’s probably the only reason why they’re quiet about that, but it’s stupid. Eventually they will have to cover their health care from the state budget. So, no matter how expensive it is now, it will be much more expensive later.

 

Have HIV positive activists come out of the movement who see themselves not as victims but as actors?

 

Yes, of course, there are people like that. And they also contribute a lot, because that makes the group visible. It also makes people see that they are not so dangerous. When they see that it’s possible to coexist, it’s more likely that people will accept them and give them their rights.

 

What about sex education courses in school?

 

I’m not sure because I haven’t been following the issue. But on this issue the situation here is better than in Poland, for example. For example, in Poland they are not allowed to distribute condoms without covering them, because of the influence of the Catholic Church. I was so shocked by this. What hypocrisy! What’s the difference if you give them out wrapped or not? They’re the same inside.

 

The Church is so powerful in Poland. What about the Church here?

 

Once in a while the Church would say something, but it generally wasn’t so discouraging. For our projects, we generally didn’t have any direct problems with ecclesiastical people around our projects. I wouldn’t say they’re particularly powerful in this regard.

Last year, I was at a church service on Sunday. It was the same day there was supposed to be the Gay Pride parade. It just so happened that on that day, the ultra-right groups were coming to church to get a blessing for beating up the marchers. I didn’t hear any blessing. In fact, I heard quite opposite from the priest who was doing the service. But they still expected the Church to bless their act.

 

What did the priest say?

 

He said that they were against the march, but they didn’t want to cause any sort of trouble. And he said that the marchers are people too and should be treated equally. And beating them up was not going to solve any problems. So it was quite a reasonable speech.

On the day of the march, I was wearing a pullover with a cap, which is what they usually wear when they’re beating up people or breaking windows. They usually cover up their faces so as not to be caught on camera.  But that’s how I was dressed, casually like that. I was back in my apartment, listening to the news on the radio. And the news said that the police cordon was only 200 meters from the entrance of my building. I wanted to go out to buy something, but I was hesitating about going out. I wear earrings, so maybe they’re going to think I’m gay and beat me up. But if I wear the cap, maybe they’re going to think that I’m from the opposite side, and the police will bring me into the station. I decided to go without food for another hour.

In any case, the government decided that time to cancel the event as a safety matter. And then the constitutional court declared such a cancellation to be illegal.

 

Can you bring a suit against the government on the basis of the constitutional court ruling? I guess it’s the internal ministry that makes this decision.

 

It’s the prime minister and the minister of police. You can go to Strasbourg to bring legal suit against your country. But still it takes quite a long time to get results. But if someone’s ribs were broken, he wouldn’t mind getting some compensation. But he would rather feel free to go outside with his boyfriend walking hand in hand — more than anything in the world probably. And that’s something you can’t do here these days.

I was standing in the crosswalk the other day. There was a woman next to me. According to her outfit you wouldn’t say she was a peasant or someone with lower education.

And she said to me, “What is happening with this parade of shame?”

I said to her, “Actually, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I only know about the Pride Parade.”

And she said, “Ugh, those English men and gays” or something like that.

That’s the theory: that everything like that comes from outside. Because Serbs are not corrupt.

 

Do you feel that extreme nationalism has increased here in Serbia over the last few years?

 

Yes. The values from the 1990s are coming back again. You should talk to someone younger. You could ask them, for example, what kind of music they are listening to. Exactly the same type of kitsch music from the 1990s is back in vogue. Inflation is very high, and so is unemployment. In this kind of environment all sorts of crazy values can flourish.

As for Kosovo, well, I never would want a passport to go to Kosovo, because personally I think it’s Serbian territory. An Albanian guy from Macedonia confronted me about the Kosovo issue. He didn’t have any real arguments. But I said to him, “I don’t mind, take it if you feel like having it. Just don’t destroy whatever is Serbian that is left there. Don’t kill the Serbian people, don’t ruin the churches, and don’t ask me for a passport to go there. Please, I just want to be free to travel there.” And he said to me: ” Dragoslav, are there many people in Serbia that think like you?” I said, “Probably not so many.”

I have a dear friend who is younger than I am, only 21, and he really doesn’t like Croatian people at all. He himself is from Montenegrin background.

I said to him, “You’re somebody with Montenegrin background. How can you have the luxury to hate a whole nation? On what basis?”

“You don’t know what they did to us!”

I said, “Okay, okay, let’s not discuss it. I’m taking you to the seaside, but under one condition: We have to go to Croatia.”

He was shouting in protest!

I said, “Okay, in the first place, do you have a passport?”

He said he didn’t.

I said, “So, I see you haven’t been anywhere abroad.”

He said, “No.”

I said, “Without even stepping outside of Serbia, you’ve decided to hate an entire nation. Why?”

It’s his upbringing. These ideas are implanted in him. Nowadays I’m trying to convert him, but it’s hard. First I have to arrange for his passport. And he’s a really cool person. That’s a shock to me. I had this prejudice that this type of opinion goes with a lack of education or a low IQ. But I’m not giving up on him. I’ll try to get him the passport and bring him to Dubrovnik. There’s still a chance.

 

When the current president says, “Let’s slow down our approach to the EU,” how popular do you think that sentiment is?

 

Just look at trade. Serbia has a certain percentage of trade with Russia, a certain percentage of trade with China, but most of it is with the countries of the European Union. So it’s natural to go inside that group of countries.

But the big issue is corruption. I would gladly vote for a policy that throws into jail anybody who takes even a penny: from today’s political establishment, from the Democratic Party, anybody. If you stole the money from the people, then you should take responsibility and do your sentence.

I don’t want to pre-judge the current government. It’s still young. I don’t have a huge expectation, but let’s see what happens.

 

What was your reaction when Djindjic was assassinated?

 

I was shocked that someone so pragmatic, so willing to make painful and unpopular decisions, could so easily become a victim of his political views. Just a few bullets, and he was gone. In one video, Djindjic says, “If Serbia stops…” And that’s what it was like. Serbia stopped. I’m really angry that they didn’t bring out in court the political background to that murder. Okay, we know who pulled the trigger. But which top politicians knew about it? If Vojislav Seselj, who’s currently at The Hague, knew about it beforehand, who else knew?

I don’t want to sound like a whiner, but I was really shocked when I heard the results of the last elections.

 

You really thought the Democratic Party was going to win.

 

Of course! I was convinced.

 

Well, what is it going to take to change Serbia?

 

That’s a good question. What we really need is a new generation of politicians: clean, capable, uncorrupted. We need a clear distinction between positions, right, left, and center. Nowadays in Serbia anybody can be with anybody: black-white-red coalitions, anything is possible.

We need clean politicians with strong personalities. Because Serbians need a leader. That’s the nationalist strain in us. Ever since Serbian history has existed, it’s been like that.

 

Belgrade, October 7, 2012


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