Ana Brnabic: Serbia prepares to welcome first female and openly gay Prime Minister

Businesswoman, 41, educated in US and UK, to take office after nomination from President Aleksandar Vucic in landmark appointment

Barbara Surk
Thursday 29 June 2017 10:19 BST
Serbia's Prime Minister-designate Ana Brnabic attends a parliamentary session in Belgrade
Serbia's Prime Minister-designate Ana Brnabic attends a parliamentary session in Belgrade (Darko Vojinovic/AP)

When President Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia nominated Ana Brnabic to the powerful post of Prime Minister this month, the West hailed it as a landmark decision that put her on course to become the country’s first female and first openly gay premier.

But some deeply conservative politicians called her nomination part of a degenerate Western plot, and critics on the left and some lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Serbs dismissed her as Vucic’s puppet.

They were appalled that Brnabic had agreed to join what they call Vucic’s autocratic government, handing him a weapon — her sexual orientation — to potentially use as a cover for human rights abuses, to stifle independent news media and to erode nascent democratic institutions in the last Balkan country with a pro-Russian government.

But Wednesday in Belgrade, the capital, Brnabic, a relative novice on Serbia’s political scene, faced down opponents in a speech at the parliament, which is set to vote on a new government and approve her as Prime Minister — a mere formality given her party’s majority in the legislature — following a lengthy debate. Striking a defiant tone, she addressed the insults head on.

“I expect to receive them also in the future,” Brnabic, 41, said. “I will respond with truths and facts that I will defend with dignity,” she added, drawing modest applause from lawmakers. “I have big goals as I look to the future,” she said. “Let’s put the past together where it belongs — to the past.”

​Brnabic called on lawmakers to join her to “modernise our society” by restructuring the sluggish economy, supporting young entrepreneurs to stop the country’s brain drain and curbing public spending.

The televised address, clocking in at one hour and 20 minutes, was perhaps the most the nation had heard her speak. Brnabic (pronounced BER-nah-beech), a businesswoman who was educated in the United States and Britain, worked in the private sector before joining Vucic’s government last summer as a public administration minister.

She had remained quiet after her nomination, absorbing scathing attacks on her sexuality and gender, and letting her patron, Vucic, do the talking.

“I’m not a spokesperson for the LGBT community,” Brnabic said in an interview with Vice Serbia after she joined the government. “I don’t want to be branded as a gay minister, just as my colleagues don’t want to be primarily defined as being straight,” she added. “All I want is to do my job as best as I can.”

It was Vucic, in fact, who mentioned publicly for the first time that Brnabic is a lesbian. He has said he does not care about her private life and valued her hard work and professionalism. “Ana Brnabic is a capable woman, a worthy woman, and I believe she will work with her whole heart to solve many problems in this country,” he said on Serbian state TV.

Addressing accusations that she was his puppet, he said: “The woman has her own brain. She is doing her job and wants to cooperate with me and with everyone in the government.”

The Prime Minister is more powerful than the President, according to the constitution. The president gets to nominate the premier but can’t interfere with the running of the government.

But critics are convinced that Vucic’s wants to shift the balance of power to the presidency, and that he is using her to do it. He has acknowledged that she would continue the policies of his government to transform Serbia, which is seeking to join the European Union, into an attractive destination for direct foreign investments.

But with the confirmation of Brnabic’s appointment, Vucic, a former ally of the Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic who has cast himself as pro-Western, will have almost unchallenged control of the country’s institutions. He won a landslide victory in the 2 April election and was sworn in as president on 31 May. His Serbian Progressive Party holds the majority in parliament.

Western officials may have seen Brnabic’s nomination as a sign of progress in a deeply conservative, relatively poor Balkan country, but the nationalists, opposition liberals and even members of the president’s governing party assailed his choice.

In a patriarchal society where almost half the population considers homosexuality an illness, some said Brnabic’s sexual orientation alone disqualified her from leading a government. Others cited her relative lack of experience in government and politics, claiming she was forced on Vucic by the West to boost Serbia’s chances of joining the European Union.

Milan Nic, an expert on the Balkans at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, said Brnabic fit perfectly into what he called “the era of Vucic.”

“She is capable and smart, but she will be a weak prime minister,” Nic said. “Vucic is a strong leader who only needs someone to administer the government for him rather than lead it.”

Critics also point out that Vucic is Brnabic’s only constituency. She does not belong to any political party, and her government is stacked with anti-Western officials who had served in his Cabinet.

“It’s not her government — it’s Vucic’s government, there is no doubt about it,” said Dragan Popovic, a political analyst who leads the Policy Institute, an independent think thank in Belgrade.

“He’s trying to play both sides, saying to the West: ‘Look what I have to suffer for being progressive. You have to support me,'” Popovic said. “At the same time, he’s signaling to the Russians not to worry.”

Any enthusiasm among supporters for Brnabic’s new role was dampened after she proposed a list of Cabinet ministers. The most stunning among them was the man set to become defence minister, Aleksandar Vulin, a staunchly pro-Russian official and former labour minister.

Vulin has frequently attacked officials in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Croatia, fuelling ethnic tensions in the region. He called Nato, which bombed Serbia in 1999 to drive its army from the predominantly Albanian province of Kosovo, an “evil” alliance.

Lawmakers are likely to approve the new Cabinet to meet the 30 June deadline, when the government has to be formed. In case it is not approved, Vucic has to dissolve the parliament and call snap elections.

For all Brnabic’s achievement, there is anger and frustration among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Serbs, who face harassment and violence. She has made it clear she is not an activist. She declined last year to lend support to a draft proposal to push for the legalisation of same-sex unions in Serbia, saying it was not the right time to start a debate.

“The only thing I share with Ana Brnabic is that we are both lesbians,” said Zoe Gudovic, 40, a social justice activist in Serbia. “I give her credit for shattering the deeply rooted notion of how a woman in the highest position of government should look like, what she should wear and how she should behave in this homophobic society.”

But, Gudovic added, “I find it impossible to accept that she is willing to be part of the nationalist, authoritarian regime that will ruin our economy, sell our country to foreigners and abolish whatever is left of a social state.”

The New York Times

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