Serbia to get first female, first openly gay PM

Serbia to get first female, first openly gay PM
By bne IntelliNews June 16, 2017

Ana Brnabic will become Serbia’s first female and first openly gay prime minister, after President Aleksandar Vucic announced on June 14 he is giving her a mandate to form a new government.

By picking Brnabic as his successor, Vucic is demonstrating his determination to appoint a government that embraces liberal and democratic values as Serbia progresses towards EU membership. Her appointment also sends out a strong pro-business message given her background as a manager at international companies in Serbia, before she became minister for public administration and local self-government in Vucic’s cabinet. 

“It is an honour to serve your own country and I will, if the parliament supports me, lead the government in a dedicated and responsible manner and do my job with morals and love,” Brnabic told the daily Blic just after her nomination was announced by Vucic.

“I’m aware of the responsibility I’m taking on myself because I will succeed a true leader, as well as of my obligations to citizens who expect to feel the results of the government’s work through better life they will live,” she added.

More details about her cabinet should be known around June 21-22.

Since being elected president on April 2, Vucic has repeatedly delayed appointing a successor, leaving Ivica Dacic, Serbia’s foreign minister and deputy prime minister, as the country’s acting premier. He told a June 14 press conference that it had not been an easy decision to make. “But I made it in accordance with the interests of Serbia and proclaimed goals… to keep making good results for citizens and the country by good work and energy,” Vucic told journalists at a June 14 press conference.

There had been speculation that the new president might appoint Dacic, the leader of the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) and the junior partner in the current coalition, or appoint another politician from within the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). Brnabic’s name was only one of several mooted, and she was not considered one of the frontrunners for the post. By picking a relative outsider, Vucic is seen as saving the SNS from internal disputes. 

Aside from the politics of the choice, as well as her gender and sexuality, Brnabic’s qualifications are impressive. Her high level roles at renewables investor Continental Wind Serbia and the non-profit Pexim Foundation have established her as a role model for young people, showing what can be achieved through education and hard work (rather than contacts and corruption). She is known to have a mortgage for a 200 square metre property in an expensive district of Belgrade (well beyond the dreams of most Serbians), paid for from her salary. 

The 42-year-old politician is internationally educated, holding an MBA from Hull University in the UK. After her time in the private sector, she served as president of the board of the National Alliance for Local Economic Development (NALED) and coordinator for a USAID program for economic development of local communities in Serbia, before joining the government in August 2016. 

Giving a mandate to form new government to Brnabic is therefore a sign for investors that the country and its society – or at least, its president – are ready to change, develop and modernise.

Conservative backlash

However, in a country where just a few years ago the Pride march was banned — it was deemed a “high risk event” by the authorities — there has already been a backlash against Brnabic’s appointment from conservative politicians and religious leaders. 

“Vucic’s choice of new PM designate wasn’t easy because of not-hidden and deep rooted Balkan homophobia. Ana Brnabic is the first openly LGBT PM in the Balkans, and the first female PM in Serbia,” Milan Jovanovic, president and founder of the Belgrade based NGO Forum for Security and Democracy, told bne IntelliNews.

Jovanovic believes that Vucic’s decision to give the mandate for a new government to Brnabic will not be accepted in a peaceful and democratic manner by the conservative part of Serbia or the Russophile opposition.

“At the same time as Vucic was announcing his decision about Brnabic, Dacic, who is popular as Russia’s favourite and her rival for the PM position, went to meet the patriarch of Serbia’s Orthodox Church who has been opposing Brnabic’s mandate loudly,” he said. 

Dacic’s coalition partner, United Serbia leader Dragan Markovic Palma, also reacted loudly against Brnabic’s appointment. 

“Only one sentence, Ana Brnabic is not my PM,” Palma told news agency Beta on June 15.

Earlier in the day, Palma said that he was not going to vote for Brnabic as prime minister, criticising the plans for a government “led by a person who is not a housefather [a Serbian term for a family man with traditional values who is the head of his household], doesn’t have kids, international popularity or contacts”. 

Palma is known both for his homophobia and for being a big fan of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has famously commissioned a waxwork of Putin for the town of Jagodina, where he is mayor.

However, even without Palma’s backing, Ana will easily manage to obtain sufficient support in the parliament to be appointed. Most parties have already announced that their MPs will vote for her, including Dacic’s SPS — there is speculation the party has been persuaded to back Vucic’s choice with the promise of more director’s chairs at state companies. 

Disappointing Moscow

Brnabic’s endorsement as PM is unlikely to please Russia, not just because of its president’s open homophobia, but also because Brnabic is one of Vucic’s leading allies in the pro-EU wing of the SNS. Moscow is rumoured to have put pressure on Vucic to give the prime minister position to Dacic, even though his SPS has significantly weaker support than Vucic’s SNS. 

“By selecting Brnabic for his successor in the PM position, Vucic closed his recent victory in the presidential elections and strengthened Serbia’s further commitment to further EU accession,” said Jovanovic. “Serbia will no longer have a president who wants one thing and dreams of his country being a Russian gubernya [province within the Russian empire], on one side and on the other side a prime minister who wants something completely different — his country to become an EU member as soon as possible. Now, their views are going to be synchronised.” 

Vucic, as prime minister, previously worked alongside President Tomislav Nikolic, who openly promoted close ties with Russia and even referred to the country as “mother Russia”, even though he didn’t openly oppose the EU. On June 7, he was appointed Chairman of the National Council for Coordination with Russia and China.

According to Jovanovic, Vucic’s decision to give the mandate to Brnabic was very brave, not easy at all and is symbolic on multiple levels. “It was made despite Russia’s pressure which in Serbia has been getting less and less hidden and harder, as neighbouring Montenegro’s entry to Nato was getting more successful, and Russia’s interference in Macedonian political disputes was getting more and more unsuccessful,” he commented. 

“Furthermore, in a partocratic country, Vucic is giving the PM position to a non-party person who is a successful manager, technocrat and not a politician thrilled with populism. Last but not least, even though Brnabic is Belgrade-born, she has Croatian roots and this is a big thing in the ‘seething Balkans’.”