Serbia: A New Prime Minister is Appointed

Ana Brnabic (born 1975) was appointed as Serbia’s Prime Minister by Aleksandar Vucic (born 1970) the President of Serbia on 15 June 2017. Ana Brnabic had previously served as Minister for Public Administration and Local Self=Government from 2016 to 2017. Her appointment as Prime Minister was formally approved by an overwhelming vote of the Serbian parliament on 28 June.

 

The ‘Gay Minister’ Much of the international media coverage of Brnabic’s appointment focussed on the fact that she was not only Serbia’s first woman Prime Minister, but also  Serbia’s first openly gay prime minister.

 

Serbia is a socially conservative country which has not generally provided a favourable environment for its LGBT community. In recent years, however, this has slowly begun to change. In October 2010 several hundred people sought to organise a Gay Pride march through central Belgrade. Hard line clerico-nationalists sought to use violence to stop the march. A day of violence resulted in 98 people being injured and 101 arrests. Subsequent attempts to organise Gay Pride marches in Belgrade were prohibited by the Serbian authorities on security and public order grounds. In September 2014 the Serbian government headed by Aleksandar Vucic, under strong pressure from the European Union gave permission for the event to go ahead. A heavy police presence was provided to ensure the security of the march. The march was attended by a number of senior figures from the Serbian government Jadranka Joksimovic (born 1978), the Minister responsible for European Integration, and Sinisa Mali (born 1972), the Mayor of Belgrade. The march took place largely without incident. In 2015 the march again took place amidst strong security measures, but the organisers reported a change in the attitude of the police who they said were more relaxed and the media whose reporting focussed on the event itself rather than the prospect of violence. In May 2017 Jadranka Joksimovic gave the Rainbow Award for fighting homophobia to Aleksandar Stojmenovic, the police officer who had been given responsibility for liaison with the LGBT community in Serbia.

 

When Ana Brnabic was first appointed as a member of the Serbian government in August 2016 she stated that: ‘I don’t want to be branded as the ‘gay minister’ just as my colleagues don’t want to be branded as straight ministers.’ Brnabic’s subsequent nomination as Prime Minister has, however, led to renewed focus on her sexuality. One of her most vocal critics has been Dragan Markovic (born 1960), a businessman from the central Serbian town of Jagodina and leader of the small United Serbia party which forms part of the ruling coalition. Dragan  Markovic is well known for his anti-LGBT views. Prior to Brnabic’s nomination Markovic had stated that the Serbian Prime Minister should be: ‘the head of a household with at least two children.’ On 16 June Dragan Markovic told the media ‘Brnabic is not my Prime Minister.’ He stated that neither he nor the other 6 United Serbia MPs would vote to confirm Brnabic as Prime Minister. Markovic, however, was a relatively isolated voice raised in open opposition to Ana Brnabic’s nomination. Some dissent over the nomination was reported within the ruling Progressive Party, but following a meeting with MPs on 20 June Vucic was able to report that while 3 MPs had spoken against her nomination they had in the end agreed to vote to approve her appointment. The support of the Progressive Party, their Socialist coalition allies, and the Vojvodina Hungarian MPs made it certain that she would be confirmed as Prime Minster.

 

The Technocrat: Ana Brnabic has a technocratic and professional, rather than political background. She is not affiliated to any political party. Brnabic was appointed as President  was also USAID co-ordinator for its programme of local community development in Serbia. Brnabic was Serbi businesswoman of the year in 2013. In this respect she contrasts sharply with Ivica Dacic (born 1966) the current Foreign Minister and leader of the Socialist Party, her main potential rival for nomination as Prime Minister. Dacic has spent his whole adult professional life immersed in Serbian party politics. He was appointed by Slobodan Milosevic as spokesman for the Socialist Party of Serbia in 1992. Ivica Dacic was responsible for leading the Socialist Party, after the fall of Milosevic, out of the wilderness, and into the political mainstream. Dacic’s life experience has given him expertise in playing the political system,  but has little incentive to bring about change. Ana Brnabic by contrast may see the need for change, but may lack the institutional capacity to bring about change. Her lack of political affiliation will mean that she will not be held back by the need to please any political grouping, but will also mean that she lacks a political support base she can rely on. It is notable that at least some of the disquiet felt at her appointment ruling Progressive and Socialists was due to the fact that they felt that this position should have been given to someone from their own ranks as part of the political and governmental spoils system. Ultimately Brnabic’s position will be dependent on the continued support of the Serbian President, Aleksandar Vucic. This direct presidential connection may be a strength, but also potentially a weakness.

 

Walking the Tightrope: The Serbian government has sought to pursue a ‘balanced policy between the West and Russia. The current Serbian government under Aleksandar Vucic has identified EU accession as a strategic goal. The first Chapters in the EU accession negotiations were opened at the start of 2016. Relations with NATO have been more complex due to the strong level of suspicion and bitterness persisting amongst Serbian public opinion following the NATO bombing of 1999. Strong institutional links and on-going co-operation have nevertheless developed between the Serbian military and their NATO counterparts. The Serbian government has, however, in parallel with this, and with an eye to Serbian public opinion, sought to maintain links with Russia. The Serbian government, for example, following the Russian annexation of Crimea in March 2014 whilst formally recognising Ukrainian sovereignty declined to implement against Russia in line with EU policy. The Serbian armed forces also continue to conduct high profile and well publicised joint exercises with the Russian military. The appointment of Ana Brnabic should be seen in the context of Aleksandar Vucic’s continued manoeuvring on the narrow ground between the West and Russia. Ana Brnabic has a strong pro-Western profile. She was educated in the United Kingdom (Hull University) and the United States (Northwood University, Michigan), and has worked with US and European organisations. Ana Brnabic is known to be a strong supporter of Serbia’s EU accession. Her main rival for the premiership Ivica Dacic by contrast has strong Russian links, and the Kremlin is known to have lobbied in the past on his behalf. Ana Brnabic’s appointment represents a real and significant move towards the West. It should be understood, however, that her appointment is unlikely to mean that the Serbian government will end its policy of maintaining links with Russia. The appointment of Aleksandar Vulin (born 1972), the leader of the Movement for Socialists, as Defence Minister may be  by seen as a pro-Russian move to set alongside Brnabic’s pro-western appointment. Aleksandar Vucic’s balancing act is set to continue for the foreseeable future.

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