Wednesday

18th Sep 2019

Analysis

Hard days ahead for Serbia's gay PM

  • Pride parades in Belgrade still require heavy police presence (Photo: Heinrich-Boell-Stiftung)

Serbia rarely makes breaking news in international media these days, but last week was an exception. On Wednesday (15 June), its former prime minister and now newly elected president, Aleksandar Vucic, appointed Ana Brnabic, a 41-year-old financial consultant, as the next prime minister.

Brnabic hit the headlines because she’s openly gay, which immediately triggered the debate about how much Serbia has changed since the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

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The appointment came as a surprise to the rest of the world, but not so much within Serbia: Brnabic already had a position in Vucic’s cabinet, where she had served as minister for public and local administration and achieved some success in modernising Serbia’s cumbersome bureaucracy.

Western-educated, smart, and clearly pro-European, she kept a low profile while projecting an aura of quiet efficiency. She is distinctly non-partisan and was brought in to the government as an expert.

Her name had been circulated as a possible successor to Vucic for several weeks, although most people believed that the job would go to acting foreign minister Ivica Dacic, an apparatchik.

When she first entered the cabinet in August last year, Brnabic caused mild curiosity rather than outrage. She never hid her sexual orientation, but liked to stress that she is not an activist.

“I don’t want to be branded as a ‘gay minister’, just as my colleagues don’t want to be branded as ‘straight ministers’”, she said in a recent interview.

She took part in last year’s Belgrade Pride parade, but she bluntly indicated that LGBT rights are not part of her portfolio.

“I’m not here [in government] as an advocate of the LGBT community”, she said.

That is why Brnabic being gay was met with relatively little resistance, apart from some grumbles by ultraconservatives in the Serbian Orthodox Church and by fringe far-right parties.

Serbia’s LGBT community was divided on the issue: while most thought that it was a big step forward, others saw it as pinkwashing - a gay-friendly PR stunt designed to mask the fact that Serbian society and politics are still homophobic.

They pointed out that annual Pride parades still required a heavy police presence and that gay and trans people were often subjected to physical attacks, with the perpetrators almost never being punished.

Much more controversial is Brnabic’s role in Vucic’s increasingly autocratic style of rule.

Pinkwash

Some have said her elevation was also designed to mask the president's crackdowns on the opposition and on free press from the West.

Her critics stress that she was not elected, but appointed by the new president, who did not consult his own party or coalition partners. Brnabic reportedly learned from the media that she had gotten the job.

There are other downsides. Brnabic’s lack of political experience will make it difficult for her to oversee Serbia’s many ministers (there are 19 in the cabinet).

The fact that she does not have much support in Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party also makes her politically vulnerable and highly dependent on the president’s support.

Progressives were disappointed that the new PM did not come from their party’s rank-and-file and some are already sharpening their knives.

This internal pressure apparently caused Vucic to take a few steps back.

On Friday, just two days after he announced Brnabic’s appointment, he declared that she would “only deal with economic issues, while politics will be dealt with by Dacic”, downgrading her authority even before she took office.

On Saturday, he also signalled that Brnabic might not get enough votes to be confirmed by parliament, in which the Progressives have a clear majority.

The Serbian president added that he would hold intensive talks with party members, postponing her confirmation, which was due this Monday, and is now expected to take place next week.

Burning Ana Brnabic

Does this mean that Brnabic might not, after all, become Serbia’s first gay PM?

She probably will.

Most analysts agree that Vucic has deliberately overplayed the resistance within his party, which has, so far, complied with his every whim.

Some believe he is using the situation to tighten control over the Progressives and to purge unruly people, whereas others say that he is planning another round of early parliamentary elections.

In any case, he seems to like campaigning more than every-day government. Serbia has had four of such elections in the past five years, all of them called for no compelling reason, but had the effect of placing him centre stage.

Meanwhile, Brnabic’s future in Serbian politics does not look bright.

She lacks legitimacy and popularity within the government and will most likely end up being burned before too long.

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