A leading candidate for President of Macedonia has claimed that discrimnation against gay and lesbian people is a myth.

As a candidate country for EU membership, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia will have to pass laws protecting sexual minorities from discrimination as part of the accession process.

Georgi Ivanov, a law professor and the Presidential candidate for the conservative governing party, VMRO DPMNE, started a row with his socialist opponent when he told a daily newspaper:

“Our system discriminates against no-one. Homosexuals stigmatise themselves and think they are in an underprivileged position.”

Asked to comment on the issue, the candidate backed by the main opposition Social Democrats, Ljubomir Frckosk, said he supported all groups that faced discrimination.

“In general, I support the pluralism of life styles of the subculture groups – this is one of the cornerstones of today‚Äôs society,” he said.

Macedonia has been a parliamentary democracy since 1991 and the President’s role is largely ceremonial.

Seven candidates are standing in the election which will be held on March 22nd, at the same time as local elections.

Mr Frchkosk is ahead in the polls.

An EU report into LGBT rights in candidate countries published in November said progress was being made in Macedonia.

“We appreciate that the progress report on FYR Macedonia clearly refers to the fact that “the framework law on anti-discrimination has not yet been enacted” and that current legislation is not in line with EU acquis,” said the International Gay and Lesbian Association (ILGA-Europe).

Acquis communautaire is the total body of EU law accumulated thus far.

“ILGA-Europe is also pleased to notice that in contrary to 2007 progress report on Macedonia, in 2008 report the Commission makes explicit reference to the discrimination faced by LGBT people as well as urges that the envisaged national anti-discrimination strategy addresses discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.”

In September the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights published a report into the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people in Macedonia.

Thomas Hammarberg said that the “atmosphere and attitude towards LGBT persons” in the former Yugoslav Republic has improved.

However, he concluded that certain persisting discriminatory attitudes exist at all levels, and legal safeguards are insufficient.

“Legal protections against discrimination remain particularly weak,” he said.

“Currently, there are limited specific legal protection provisions available for discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation but not on the basis of gender identity.

“The Law on Military Service was amended and took out the prohibition for homosexuals to serve. Moreover, a recent amendment to the Law on Work Relations prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a welcome positive legislative change albeit with a narrow scope of application.”

Mr Hammarberg said that the lack of a law against homophobic and transphobic hate crimes should be considered, along with Constitutional protection on the grounds of sexual orientation.

The 47-member Council predates the European Union.

It promotes and protects democracy, educational and sporting co-operation and created the European Court of Human Rights.

In 2004 Macedonia fomally applied for EU membership and began the stabilisation and association process.